Officials doubt exposure to rabies

Kevin Wilson

State health officials say a few Eastern New Mexico University students may have been exposed to rabies last week, but it’s unlikely any will become the state’s first reported human case in 48 years.
Dr. Paul Ettestad, a public health veterinarian with the New Mexico Department of Health, said he was notified of a dead bat that a student discovered on a sidewalk at the college. One student picked it up, while a few others took a quick look at the bat before county health officials were notified.
Ettestad said the department takes bat exposures seriously because rabies is “100 percent fatal” if contracted, meaning the bat will go to Santa Fe for testing.
Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site (http://www.cdc.gov).
People usually get rabies from the bite of a rabid animal, according to the site. It is also possible, but quite rare, that people may get rabies if infectious material from a rabid animal, such as saliva, goes directly into eyes, nose, mouth, or a wound.
“The good thing is that this bat was dead on the ground,” Ettestad said. “Even if the bat does turn out to be positive for rabies, we probably wouldn’t have to give anybody prophylaxis (medication).”
The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the CDC each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Domestic animals account for less than 10 percent of the reported rabies cases, with cats, cattle, and dogs most often reported rabid.
Ettestad said the state’s last reported human case of rabies came in 1956. Meanwhile, local veterinarian Kevin Hertel has only seen one case of rabies during his 17 years of practice — a horse in the town of Sulphur Springs, Texas.
“It was quite a public outcry and panic trying to alert everybody,” said Hertel, who has operated Hertel Veterinary Services since 1998. “A lot of well-meaning people had came by and fed the horse and tried to look at the mouth.”
Rabies can only be confirmed in a laboratory, but Hertel said people should be wary of non-domesticated animals that aren’t afraid of humans or act unusual.
“We’ve had several unvaccinated animals that have bitten people tested, and they’ve all been negative,” Hertel said. “They were unprovoked bites, but it might have been because the animal was in pain (and bit as a reaction).”