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    Rabies may be on rise in Broome

August 10, 2000

Once her husband pried the enraged raccoon off her leg and the initial shock of the attack had subsided, Alice Weston faced another fear. What if the animal was rabid?

"That was my worry, once we realized he wasn't going to try and bite me someplace else," the Vestal resident recalled Thursday about the Aug. 10 incident that left her with a 50-stitch gash near her ankle.

Neighbors, police and a private trapper weren't able to locate the animal, which raced out from the edge of Weston's porch and sank its teeth into her flesh. That no one could say for sure if the raccoon carried the disease sentenced the woman to five rounds of injections, known as rabies post-exposure treatment, a necessity after a bite from an animal that carries or might carry the disease.

Rabies cases appear to be on the rise this year in Broome County and in other parts of New York state, after appearing to level off in many counties during the late-1990s. Jan Chytilo, supervising public health educator for the Broome County Health Department, said the number of county residents receiving post-exposure treatments in the first eight months of the year has almost matched the total for all of 1999.

"The number does seem to be going up," she said. "If an animal that's potentially rabid bites someone, we're not going to take chances."

Through Sept. 1, the county received 518 reports of people having been bitten by animals. Of the animals involved, the county has been able to send 140 to the state for testing. One in 10 tested positive for rabies.

Death sentence

In humans, the disease causes paralysis, convulsions, delirium and "is invariably fatal once symptoms appear," according to the state health department. Rabies is usually contracted via exposure to an infected animal, typically a raccoon or a bat. In New York, the disease has killed two humans in the past decade - the first such deaths in the state in almost 40 years. And while more fatalities took place during the 1920s, '30s and '40s, Chytilo said rabies is a greater public health threat than the West Nile Virus or other more-publicized diseases.

In both recent New York deaths, including a 1993 incident involving an 11-year-old Sullivan County girl, health officials said bats were to blame. Rabies last killed a human in Pennsylvania in 1984.

"A bite from a rabid bat is far more dangerous than a bite from a bat with West Nile," Chytilo said. "With rabies, the risk of death (without post-exposure treatment) is 100 percent."

New York state health officials say the risk to humans with rabies is especially alarming because the state's raccoon population is believed to be as high as it's ever been.

The state's Wadsworth Center for Laboratories and Research said raccoons accounted for 85 percent of New York's 2,747 cases of animal rabies in 1993 - the highest one-state total in U.S. history, Wadsworth said. Three years earlier, the state confirmed only 245 cases of animal rabies - 85 in raccoons.

Broome, Chenango, and Tioga counties saw rabies numbers spike in 1996 when a total of 62 rabid animals were identified.

A year later, Cortland, Delaware and Otsego counties recorded highs - Delaware had 18, Otsego, 20, and Cortland reported 68 cases - as the raccoons continued to move north.

Now, though, health officials said bats are contributing to a greater number of rabies cases.

State statistics show that the winged mammals, which accounted for just 2.6 percent of the state's confirmed rabies cases in 1994, contributed to 6.8 percent in 1996. Two years later, even as statewide totals held steady at around 1,100 and the number of rabid deer and dog cases declined, 10 percent of the rabid animals identified in New York were bats.

That means Alice Weston and others who live close to nature have something else to think about when they venture outside their homes.

"I'm not going to let (the attack) control my life by any means," she said. "But what happened is a reminder that raccoons may look like cute little animals, but we need to remember that they're wild."

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