Published on July 09, 2019

Is rabies a threat on Cape Cod?

Cape Cod rabies

In late April and early May, baits and sachets containing rabies vaccine were spread throughout Southeastern Massachusetts towns, along the Cape Cod Canal and on Cape Cod south to Route 151 in Falmouth and west to Route 149 in Marstons Mills and Barnstable Village.

The goal? To keep the deadly virus from spreading among raccoons, skunks, coyotes and other wild land mammals. That, in turn, helps prevent wildlife from infecting pets and people. The bait program has been very successful, said Karl von Hone, co-chair of the Cape Cod Rabies Task Force and Yarmouth’s director of natural resources.

The last non-bat animal from Cape Cod that tested positive for rabies occurred in 2012, but a rabid bat was found in August 2018, according to Dr. Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist and state public health veterinarian.

Von Hone noted that two strains of rabies exist locally: one carried by land mammals and another carried by bats. There is no bait program to vaccinate bats because they eat insects they catch while flying, making development of a preventive approach very difficult, he said. However, the risk from bats has been reduced because a fungus has dramatically lowered their numbers.

It was a bat bite that caused the most recent rabies death of a Cape resident. In January 2012, a Marstons Mills man died from a bat bite. According to the Cape Cod Times, Kevin A. Galvin was the first person to die of rabies acquired in Massachusetts since 1935.

The virus persists among bats, albeit at a low level. In February, a dead bat found in a Tisbury home on Martha’s Vineyard tested positive for rabies, according to the Vineyard Gazette.

The rabies virus infects warm-blooded animals, and is spread via the saliva of an infected animal when it bites. The infection targets the brain and nervous system. Symptoms may begin with fever, headache and general discomfort and progress to confusion, anxiety, partial paralysis, hallucinations, excitation, fear of water, difficulty swallowing and excessive salivation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without proper medical treatment, death often follows within days.

Seek Medical Help if Bitten

Infected people sometimes do not seek help because they don’t realize they’re sick with rabies. This may be especially true with bat bites, which can be tiny or seem insignificant. Most human cases of rabies are caused by bat bites that were not recognized as such or even noticed, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

People who have been bitten by a wild animal, or whose pet has tangled with one, should seek medical attention immediately, said Cape Cod Hospital infectious disease physician Patrick Cahill, MD. A series of vaccine shots will offer protection against contracting rabies. This is best done at the emergency department, where they will have ready access to the necessary inoculations, he said.

According to the CDC, modern medicine has helped lower the number of rabies deaths from more than 100 per year in the early 1900s to one or two cases annually by the 1990s. Treatment varies depending upon geographical locale and species of animal involved, but typically consists of a dose of immune globulin followed by four doses of vaccine over a two-week period.

Fatal infections in the United States are rare, despite the disease’s persistence in wild animals. According to the state Department of Public Health, more than 5,000 animals have tested positive in Massachusetts since 1992. Von Hone said surveillance on Cape Cod includes testing roadkill.

Von Hone gave an example of how fast rabies can spread. He said the “bait barrier” between the Cape and the mainland was breached in 2004.

“In two years, it spread to Provincetown,” he said.

How to reduce your risk:

  • Avoid wild animals. Do not touch them.
  • If bitten, wash wound with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately.
  • If bitten by a bat or if any contact with a bat is suspected, you should contact animal control right away to attempt to catch the animal for observation.
  • Keep your pets vaccinated against rabies.

Since pets may interact with wild animals, Massachusetts law requires pet owners to regularly vaccinate their dogs, cats and ferrets against rabies. Proof of vaccination is requited by cities and towns to obtain a dog license. To help owners obey the law, von Hone said the Cape Cod Rabies Task Force works with local veterinarians and town health departments to offer low-cost vaccination clinics, often held in the spring.

“It’s not just their pets they’re protecting, but themselves and their families,” von Hone said.