Rabies in NYC

A few weeks ago, I received a summary of animal rabies and testing in NYC from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  I knew that the incidence of rabies was increasing here, but I had no idea how much!  The report was pretty enlightening. In 2010, a record 145 (!) animals from NYC tested positive for rabies.  The main reason for this was the rabies epidemic in raccoons in Central Park.  Rabies in raccoons was first discovered in NYC in 1992.  In 1993, there were 53 cases.  That was a record high at the time.  In 1998, there was only 1 case of raccoon rabies in NYC.

Historically, most rabid animals in NYC had been identified in the Bronx and Staten Island, with a few isolated reports of rabid raccoons in Queens.  That all changed in 2010. Manhattan had the most, of course (123), because of Central Park.  Eighteen cases of rabies were reported in the Bronx (12 raccoons, 3 bats, 1 skunk, 1 cat, and 1 coyote).  Two cases were seen in Queens (1 raccoon, 1 opossum), and two in Brooklyn (raccoons). (This was the first time ever that raccoon rabies was ever reported in Brooklyn.) There were no cases of raccoon rabies (or any other type of rabies) on Staten Island in 2010.  Bat rabies, however, continues to be found in all five boroughs.

Because of the high incidence of raccoon rabies in Central Park, a trap-vaccinate-release program was conducted from February to April 2010, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus amongst the raccoons and to prevent humans and pets from being exposed.  A second round was conducted in September, October, and November, with the goal being to vaccinate the juvenile raccoons born in the spring.  A total of 396 raccoons were vaccinated in Central Park, Morningside Park, and Riverside Park.  Pretty impressive!

Since 1992, a total of 519 terrestrial animals have tested positive for rabies in NYC.

As for dog rabies, there hasn’t been a case of canine rabies in NYC since 1954.  However, dogs with the raccoon variant of rabies have been reported in neighboring areas just outside NYC.  Long Island was free of raccoon rabies until 2004, when the virus was identified in Nassau County.  Now it is also in Suffolk County.  In 2010, Nassau and Suffolk Counties reported no rabid animals, but Westchester did.  In fact there were 39 cases of rabies in Westchester in 2010:  21 raccoons, 7 bats, 5 skunks, 5 cats, and 1 conservative radio talk show host.

We tend to think of rabies as being more common in dogs than cats, but that’s not true in the U.S., and in NYC. Since 1992, rabies has been diagnosed in NYC in 12 cats, mostly strays. With all of the rabies cases being reported in NYC, dog and cat owners need to keep their pets’ rabies vaccination status current.
With all of the rodents in NYC (squirrels, rats, mice), people worry about them being a source of rabies.  Not to worry. Squirrels, rats and mice are not considered to be vectors of rabies.  I’ve known this about squirrels since 1978, when I was bitten by a squirrel in Washington Square Park.  I was a freshman at NYU, and I was feeding a squirrel in a peanut, and it took the peanut and bit me on my finger.  Ungrateful little varmint.  I went to the NYU nurses office, where she told me that rabies wasn’t a worry.  Members of the rabbit family are also not considered to be vectors of rabies, except groundhogs. A groundhog tested positive for rabies on Staten Island in 2007, and a few rabid groundhogs have been found in neighboring areas outside NYC.

I myself have never diagnosed a case of rabies, and have never seen one. I’ve submitted samples for rabies testing, however.  It is not a pleasant task.  When testing for rabies, you have to submit the brain.  I’ll spare my readers the details.

In my senior year in veterinary school, there was a horse in the large animal ward with interesting neurological symptoms.  Many of the students were talking about it, and a lot of our classmates were told to take a look at the “interesting horse” out in the barn.  I never bothered to go out and look.  The horse ended up being diagnosed with rabies, and all faculty, staff, and students who had any contact at all with the horse had to receive post-exposure rabies treatment, just to be on the safe side.  Forty of my classmates received treatment.  Not me!

Rabies kills about 55,000 people a year.  When people get exposed to rabies, they need to get prompt post-exposure treatment if they are to survive.  Once the symptoms of rabies develop, it is almost invariably fatal.  I say “almost” because in 2005, a teenage girl was the first person to survive a rabies infection.  She was put into an induced coma once her symptoms appeared.   The doctors hypothesized that the harmful effects of rabies were caused by temporary brain dysfunctions, and that partially halting brain function, temporarily, would protect the brain from damage while giving the immune system time to defeat the virus. After 31 days of isolation and 76 days of hospitalization, the girl, Jeanna Giese, was released from the hospital, with no after effects.  Her treatment became known as the “Milwaukee protocol”.  Twenty five other people were treated with this protocol, and two survived. The protocol was further modified and an additional 10 patients were treated with the new protocol.  Two of them survived.  In April 2008, an 11 year old boy in Colombia also survived rabies after a coma was medically induced.   These are the only six known cases of a person surviving rabies once the symptoms develop.  There is only one single case of a person surviving rabies after symptoms developed in which the patient received no treatment before or after symptoms developed.  One case!  In short, rabies is NOT a good disease to have.

Let me close by saying… vaccinate your cats and dogs against rabies!!  Just do it!


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