Calling it an isolated case, the Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed a single cow in McCulloch County has tested positive for Texas fox rabies, the first such case in the state in over four years, raising concerns that the deadly virus may be returning to Central Texas after several years of intense eradication efforts.

In 1995, one of the worst outbreaks of rabies in the U.S. reached its peak with 644 cases of canine rabies (Canis latrans), reported in a 20-county region from 1988-1995. Texas state officials declared a state health emergency. Adding to the problem was a separate outbreak of fox rabies in West Texas, which quickly spread south into the Hill Country.  A statewide rabies quarantine was ordered and an experimental aerial rabies vaccine program was launched in an effort to manage the outbreak.

In all, hundreds of animals in Texas, including pets and livestock, were infected and died as a result and over 2,000 people received post-exposure shots. But the aerial vaccine program was deemed successful and every year since 1995 bait laced with rabies vaccine has been distributed in hot spots all across the state. In 2004, federal officials declared the canine strain eliminated from the state and the last case of the more dreaded fox rabies was reported in 2009, leading health officials to declare the virus virtually eradicated from Central Texas.

Until now.

With the confirmation of a strain of fox rabies in a Melvin, Texas, cow last week, officials with several state agencies are asking for the public’s immediate help in monitoring the suspected outbreak.

Agencies directly involved with the “Enhanced Rabies Surveillance Testing for Select Areas of West Central Texas” include the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Texas Wildlife Services Program. AgriLife Extension is coordinating county-by-county educational efforts to inform the public.

State Health Services officials say as temperatures continue to climb in the summer months, the chance for a rabies outbreak increases. To make matters worse, drought conditions heighten the chance of spreading the disease as more animals flock to shrinking drinking water sources in the wild.

Confirmed rabies numbers increasing

So far this year four cows in Texas have tested positive for rabies as well as a horse. Confirmed cases of rabies have also been reported in skunks, raccoons, bats, cats, dogs and the fox in Central Texas. In all, 265 cases of rabies have been confirmed this year so far and that number will multiply rapidly through the summer months.

Vance Christie, AgriLife Extension agent in McCulloch County, said management and control efforts started May 28 and are currently focused in McCulloch, Concho, Menard and Mason counties. Brown, Coleman, Gillespie, Kimble, Llano, Mills, Runnels, San Saba, Schleicher, Sutton and Tom Green counties will ultimately be part of the overall surveillance effort to keep the deadly virus from spreading.

“On May 6, we had a confirmed case of Texas fox rabies southwest of Melvin on the McCulloch/Concho county line,” Christie said. “This strain is different from the typical skunk variant and was thought to be eradicated from the area for the past six years. So far, this has been the one isolated case and was found in a cow."

Christie says there is no need for property owners, farmers or ranchers to panic and he is asking ranchers not to kill and bury animals suspected of the disease without first having them tested.

“The main focus is not to cause a panic in the immediate area but rather to let landowners and homeowners understand the situation,” he said. “We need the public’s help to report any encounters with wildlife or strange-acting domestic animals or livestock. It’s important that the public knows that the state will pick up any of the cost associated with testing of the animals. But I want to stress that this is not the time for the ‘Old Three Ss,’ of shoot, shovel and shut-up to avoid any future problems. Doing so could actually prolong the problem.”

Christie said Wildlife Services is currently dropping oral rabies vaccine via helicopter in the four main counties. Animals eat the bait and are inoculated against rabies. As the number of vaccinated animals increases, the disease decreases and lessens the risk of human or animal exposure to rabies.

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“Remember, an animal is considered suspect if it is a target species that is aggressive, unafraid or acting unusual,” Christie said. “Target species include fox, bobcats, raccoons, coyotes and free ranging cats and dogs.”

If a suspect animal is found in the target counties, Christie advises contacting the appropriate personnel such as animal control, sheriff’s department, county trapper or a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden.

“If you live out of the city limits and see a suspect animal and cannot contact appropriate personnel, humanely destroy it, but not with a headshot as the animal’s brain must be intact for testing. Keep the carcass cool, but do not freeze it, until appropriate personnel can be contacted," he advises.

Above all, Christie says to think of safety first. He recommends wearing latex or leather gloves when handling all dead animals.

Rabies run down

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/.