Rabies is a severe, fatal disease affecting the nervous system and salivary glands of dogs, cats, humans, livestock and a wide range of wild mammal species including foxes, wolves, raccoons, and skunks, the wildlife species most frequently implicated in the carriage and spread of rabies in North America. The disease, which has no cure, is caused by a virus of the family Rhabdoviridae, a family which includes several genera, one of which, the genera Lyssavirus, contains rabies.

Spread by the bite or scratch of infected wild and domestic animals, rabies is a highly contagious disease and one of the animal diseases of major zoonotic risk to the human public.

State officials say an increased vaccination level in pets and livestock is very important for rabies prevention. Historically, human rabies cases declined when canine rabies cases decreased because of increased vaccination rates, even though rabies cases in wild animals were elevated during the same period. In the early 1950s, the number of U.S. rabies cases in dogs and humans peaked. In the mid-1950s, dog and human rabies cases declined with the advent of a highly effective rabies vaccine for dogs and maintained this lower level through the early 1990s. However, U.S. rabies cases in wild animals peaked in the early 1960s, the late 1970s and early 1980s, and again in the early 1990s.

People do not commonly encounter rabid wild animals; but rabid pets and livestock can bring the disease into the home or ranch area. Rabid domestic animals are 5 to 10 times more likely to come into contact with a human than are rabid wildlife. Vaccinated domestic animals can break the rabies transmission cycle by creating a buffer zone between rabid wild animals and humans. It is also beneficial to decrease the number of stray animals and increase knowledge of bite avoidance techniques. To ensure these actions, rabies education for government employees, animal control officers, and the general public is essential.

Texas AgriLife Extension officials and representatives of USDA-APHIS say an uptick in confirmed cases of rabies comes at a bad time because of recent cutbacks in the Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Project. Every year for the past 17 years planes loaded with thousands of plastic packets smeared with fish oil and bait containing oral rabies vaccine were distributed by aircraft in areas where coyote and fox rabies are known to be concentrated, specifically along the U.S./Mexico border corridor where rabid coyotes are known to cross into Texas, and across a broad area of the Hill Country where the fox rabies outbreak a few years ago was centered.

In addition to budget constraints and funding shortfalls, the vaccination project has fallen victim in part to its own remarkable success. As more and more wildlife became vaccinated against the onset of rabies, the number of confirmed cases declined. But an uptick in confirmed cases now indicates the need for the program remains while funding commitments have begun to shrink at both the state and federal level.

But officials with state and federal agencies say they remain on alert for increasing rabies numbers and are committed to take steps necessary to address the problem. In the meantime, they are asking for the public’s support in both reporting rabies cases in wildlife and livestock and by continuing to have domestic pets vaccinated each year to slow the spread of the virus. 

If a human or domestic animal has been bitten, scratched or otherwise exposed to rabies by a wild or domestic mammal, or if there is any question about what constitutes exposure, contact the Texas Department of State Health Services. For West Central Texas, those contacts are Dr. Ken Waldrup, 915-834-7782 or 915-238-6216; or Kathy Parker at 432-571-4118 or 432-230-3007. For after hours emergency, call 512-776-7111.

For more information see: http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/idcu/disease/rabies/.