By Brian O. Anderson
ORISE Fellow/Environmental Health Specialist, DPW
As a federal installation and training ground for future Soldiers, West Point is surrounded by rough terrain and lush forests ideal for combat training. Nestled next to the Hudson River, the U.S. Military Academy and the surrounding communities are also home to a myriad of wildlife, birds and protected species including, but not limited to, the northern long-eared bat, the bald eagle and the timber rattlesnake.
With so many species present in the surroundings, one must be careful of zoonotic illnesses for which the human population may be at risk. One such illness is rabies.
Rabies is a disease spread by mammals caused by the virus Rabies Lyssavirus. Though the dog is the most commonly known host that harbors the virus, rabies can also be spread by other animals. Infected bats, foxes, raccoons, skunks and cats can also be threats. In the northeast corridor of the United States, it is the raccoon that’s recorded as having the virus in greatest numbers. One animal with a unique reaction to the virus is the opossum. This animal is unique in that it’s exceedingly rare that it harbors the virus due to its lowered body temperature.
The rabies virus is mostly spread through the saliva and bodily fluids of the infected animal. It can be spread through the direct contact (broken skin or mucous membranes) in eyes, nose or the mouth. It is important to know that the virus becomes non-infectious when it dries or is exposed to sunlight. So, once saliva has been exposed to air it may no longer support the virus though contact should still be avoided.
The virus is enveloped, and the life cycle is typical of any other viruses. However, this one attacks neurons and the central nervous system. The typical life cycle and mechanism of infection is provided in the diagram to the right. In the late stages of the disease, the brain and the salivary glands are affected.
The signs and symptoms of rabies vary and may initially be mistaken for other illnesses or poisoning. In humans, the signs of rabies include irritability or aggressiveness, excessive movements or agitation, confusion, bizarre or strange thoughts or hallucinations, muscle spasms, seizures, weakness or paralysis and extreme sensitivity to bright lights, sound or touch.
In animals, though the most definitive method of confirming rabies is from retrieving brain samples, there are some typical universal signs to note. One such sign may be perceived as uncontrolled movements. The subject may appear wobbly, moving with a circular motion or may seem partially paralyzed, disoriented or hurt from self-mutilation.
The behavior patterns of these animals may be classified as furious or paralytic.
In the furious form, the animal may appear agitated. It might bite or snap at imaginary or real objects and drool excessively.
In the paralytic form, the wild animal might appear tame and seem to have no fear of human contact.
Regardless of the circumstances, prevention techniques should be adhered to at all times to decrease the possibility of transmission. One of the most obvious and efficient ways is to vaccinate one’s pets. Vaccination of pets is paramount and serves as a first line of defense because pets are usually the first target hosts from other rabid animals. It is advised to visit the veterinarian and make sure that pets are regularly updated on shots, especially if pets have been traveling or are transported from another state or foreign country. Be extremely cautious if traveling to countries in Asia and Africa, as laws on animal vaccinations may not be as strict as in the United States. If traveling with pets, avoid areas where pets can encounter wild animals.
Whether hiking or on a leisure walk, it is advised to avoid any confrontation with wild animals that may be rabid. This include animals which may have confrontation with pets. If pets have an altercation with an animal suspected of being rabid, please do not attempt to separate or cause further agitation, as you may be exposed to bodily fluids from both animals. Young children should be especially advised.
It is also important to avoid feral animals on the installation, including but not limited to cats and dogs. These animals may not be vaccinated or may have been in contact with other animals that are not vaccinated.
If one notices a rabid animal at any point, please notify the Military Police on the installation at 845-938-3333.
It is not advised to personally handle these animals unless one’s life is in imminent danger. Do not approach the animal, but note its type, size, color and location.
There are several prevention techniques that should be adhered to in order to decrease the possibility of the transmission of rabies.
If in the rare case one is bitten or scratched by an animal which is rabid or suspected to be rabid, contact your healthcare provider immediately. If your provider is not available, please proceed to the nearest hospital or urgent care facility. If this occurs on the installation, report to Keller Hospital. Rabies should always be taken seriously.
To receive adequate treatment and not risk casualty, timing is especially important for the correct administration of the Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) vaccines starting immediately and extending to a 14-day period. Ignoring valid symptoms for 48 hours can prove fatal.
In conclusion, rabies is an illness which should not be taken lightly. Though 10s of thousands are affected globally with the virus, due to increased human and animal vaccination efforts the number of cases in the United States has significantly decreased to almost nil.
As alluded to earlier, it is important to stay away from animals which may be rabid. If there is a case where one is infected, it is important to notify a healthcare associate on the installation, as well as local animal control and state officials (for epidemiological purposes).
For more information on the physiological effects, spread and treatment of rabies, helpful links and contacts are provided below:
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC at https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/.
• New York State Department of Health at https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/health/health-topics/rabies.page.
• American Veterinary Medical Association at https://www.avma.org/resources/public-health/rabies-and-your-pet.
• USMA West Point Office of Preventive Medicine & Wellness at 845-938-5832/5834.