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Rabies vaccination not just a good idea — it’s the law

Through the first six months of 2019, more animals in Charleston County have tested positive for rabies — five — than in any entire year since 2010. That’s alarming and we should be responsible and vigilant in reducing the risk of rabies transmissions.

Vaccinate your pets against rabies and keep them up to date — it’s the law! Don’t leave garbage or pet food outside — it can attract wild and stray animals. If you must leave garbage outside, place it in a sturdy can with a tight-fitting lid.

In South Carolina, it appears that raccoons are leading the exposure incidents, although bats lead throughout the country.

Much of the information in this column is sourced from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DHEC). Rabies is an acute viral infection resulting in encephalomyelitis that is nearly always fatal. The rabies virus may be transmitted when saliva or neural tissue of an infected animal is introduced into the body, usually through a bite or scratch. Fresh saliva and neural tissue can also be infectious if introduced onto a mucous membrane or a fresh break in the skin. Exposure to blood, urine or other bodily fluids from a known or suspected rabid animal are not considered exposures.

Animal (mammal) bites are a reportable condition mandated by S.C. Law. If an animal (mammal) is suspected of exposure to rabies, reports are to be made by phone within 24 hours of a provider’s attendance to the patient, or of the provider receiving a report of a bite from a patient. Providers are required to report animal exposures to DHEC so that animal investigations can be promptly initiated.

Most animal exposures do not require post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP); locating the animal for quarantine or testing may prevent unnecessary PEP. Administration of rabies PEP is a medical urgency, not a medical emergency. A consultation with public health officials is known to reduce unnecessary rabies PEP, since they have expertise in the epidemiology of animal rabies and the indications for post-exposure treatment. DHEC physicians are available for medical consultations.

Rabies from non-bite exposures is rare; however, non-bite exposures as a potential for rabies transmission require assessment. PEP should be considered in the event of the introduction of fresh saliva and/or neural tissue from a known or suspected rabid animal into an open wound, fresh scratch or abrasion, or mucous membrane.

The majority of human rabies cases reported in the United States in the last few decades have been attributed to exposures to bats that were unrecognized as a risk for rabies transmission.

Bat bites cause minimal trauma making identification of a wound difficult. A potential exposure to a bat requires a thorough evaluation if the bat is not available for testing. Bat exposures are defined as: Waking up to find a bat in your room; finding a bat where children, pets or persons with impaired mental capacity (intoxicated or mentally disabled) have been left unattended; a pet or person that has been in direct contact with a bat.

If possible, bats involved in potential human exposures should be safely collected and submitted for rabies testing. The majority of bats submitted for testing are not rabid. Timely rabies testing will eliminate the need for risk assessments and unnecessary prophylaxis.

During working hours, animal bites may be reported to the DHEC Bureau of Environmental Health Services Offices. DHEC physicians are available for medical consultation to assist with rabies risk assessment. Please call (843) 953-0150 if you are in Charleston, Dorchester or Berkeley County. On nights, weekends or holidays, call 1-(888)-847-0902 and the answering service will route calls to the appropriate DHEC responder.

It’s hard to tell if a wild or stray animal has rabies or some other type of illness such as distemper or lead poisoning. If you see a wild or stray dog or cat behaving aggressively or abnormally, always play it safe. Do not touch or approach the animal and keep your pets and children safely away from it. Call your local animal control officer!

If you see a wild animal behaving aggressively or abnormally, again, play it safe. Call DHEC or a Wildlife Control Operator on the S.C Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website at You may also call a wildlife removal company for assistance.

DHEC investigates animal bites and other incidents that may have exposed someone to rabies; however, it does not trap or retrieve animals.

Compassionate people often take in or try to get help for orphaned, wounded and sick wild animals. But impulsively approaching or handling a wild animal is risky.

You could be exposed to rabies or other diseases and parasites.

If the animal is in pain, it could attack you.

You could face fines or other penalties should you accidentally break a state or federal wildlife law.

Never approach or handle an orphaned, injured or sick raccoon, skunk, fox, coyote, mink, weasel, otter, opossum or any other meat-eating wild animal. Instead, for help with any orphaned, sick or wild animal, seek advice and help from a wildlife rehabilitation organization. In the Tri-County area, call Keeper of the Wild Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary at (843) 636-1659.

Joe Elmore is CEO and president of the Charleston Animal Society.

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