Animals' 'insomnia' spreads rabies infection

  • 2000-06-01
  • By Anna Pridanova
BAUSKA - On May 23 the Latvian Veterinary Service called an emergency following a rise in rabies infections during April in the small Latvian Bauska region.

A warm winter and an early spring promoted increased animal contacts, thus spreading dangerous infection.

"This year many predators like raccoons and badgers which hibernate did not, because of the unexpected warmth. They were wandering around aggressively, thus increasing the number of contacts. As a result, the rabies infection spread among wild animals," said Janis Bite, head of the of Bauska region Veterinarian Service.

Within the first four months of this year, 24 cases of canine madness were documented, while there were only nine cases last year. Foxes and raccoons dominate among infected animals.

"The curve usually goes in cycles. Several years it drops, and then rises for two or three years. Then it goes down again. One year the infection spreads, another year the carriers die and the number of sick animals drops," said Emils Jegers, the head of the Animal Health Division at the state Veterinary Service. In total 146 cases were detected in this year.

There are three main reasons for the leap, said Bite. First is the warmth that distorted the natural winter rhythm for half of Latvia's wild animals - raccoons and badgers. Their lifestyle is that they do not eat during the winter even if awake. Therefore they can not become immune by eating vaccine, but can become infected.

"But now the situation is under control again. The sun will put them out of their misery. If during the winter sick animals may live for several months, in the hot days they die very soon," said Bite.

The second reason is that the animals population has risen dramatically during the past few years after animal hunting ceased to be profitable. This lead to foxes and other predators' overpopulation.

And the third reason ironically is the vaccination of wild animals which raises the number of surviving animals and in a weird way during the first years of application raises the number of disease carriers.

The vaccination of wild animals started in Latvia two years ago. Bite said Germany's experience shows that in the first years of vaccination the number of carriers rises, but in three to four years it drops drastically.

Hydrophobia (rabies) has always been a very serious problem for European countries, said Bite. Although pet vaccination has existed for a long time it has not reduced the infection of wild animals. Since the 1980s fox have been vaccinated in Western European countries. Later, when it appeared to be quite effective, the territory was extended eastwards. Now on the third stage of the "global program," the territory stretching from the Black Sea to St. Petersburg is covered, said Bite.

Vaccination is conducted during the winter with the help of hunters and Forest Service specialists. Small bricks of bait, designed to smell like fish as far away as 50 meters, in consideration of foxes' taste preferences, with the vaccine pill inside are dispersed in the animals' habitation places.

"Hydrophobia is a very inhuman disease. People die in agony within two weeks after the clinical stage of disease is detected. This is why so much money is spent to prevent its expansion," said Bite. "The time spell between the infection moment and clinical stage varies from two weeks to more than a year. People die by a clear consciousness. The sight of the water itself causes the paralysis of the jaw and throat and spasms," said Bite.

There are no negative consequences if people get vaccinated right after they are bitten, but lethal outcome if they fail. There have been three deaths in Latvia within the last 10 years, said Jegers.

"The essence of personal safety from rabies is conscious and logical behavior. When you see a wild animal acting queerly, avoid contacts with him. A healthy wild animal would never approach people places, but the rabies carrier loses his defense reflex and leaves the forest. This year we had three cases when mad foxes came and died at the dog-houses in the farms," said Bite.

All pets - cats and dogs - are required by law to be vaccinated against rabies. Other home animals get vaccinated against rabies only if after suspected contact with infected animals.

The infection spreads not only via blood but also via excreted liquids and unpasteurized milk. It can be transmitted from ewes to their lambs. Even before animals enter the clinical stage, and their disease is not detected yet, they are dangerous.