Deer attack rescuers treated for rabies

Pittsburgh — Two good Samaritans are undergoing rabies treatment in Westmoreland County after rescuing a woman from an attack by a rabid deer.

They were breakfasting at a MacDonald’s in a shopping plaza off Route 66 in Mount Pleasant when they saw a young doe acting aggressively toward a woman at about 7 a.m. July 8, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commis­sion.

The woman was getting ready to open the paint store she managed, and was attempting to take a photo of the deer with her smartphone when the deer began to charge.

The men rushed to help her, wrestling the animal to the ground. It died in the fracas, and a necropsy on its brain – the only way to test for the presence of rabies – revealed that the deer was infected with the deadly disease, said Mike Papichak, commission wildlife conservation officer.

“All of the people involved were contacted by the state health department, and two are receiving post-exposure shots. This deer obviously was unhealthy, but whenever we have human exposure, an animal has to be tested.”

This was the first reported case of rabies in a deer in Pennsylvania so far this year, putting it on par with 2013, when just one case was reported the entire calendar year, according to the Pennsylvania State Health Department.

There were three reported cases in 2012 and two in 2011. In recent years, the annual number of reported rabies cases involving any mammal averaged below 400 statewide.

Why deer are so seldom infected is a bit of a mystery, said Craig Shultz, veterinarian and director of the Bureau of Animal Health for the Department of Agriculture. “Any warm-blooded mammal is susceptible, but deer have a degree of resistance – just why we don’t know – and the exposure risk is low, perhaps because they don’t usually survive a predator attack.”

Rabies typically is transmitted through a bite or when the saliva of an infected animal comes into contact with a break in the skin or a mucous membrane, and it is fatal if the victim isn’t treated. Rabies establishes itself on a peripheral nerve and makes its way to the spinal cord and the brain, Shultz said.

The virus can incubate in the body for months, although the closer the bite is to the brain, the more quickly the virus develops, Shultz said. “If you get bitten on the face you’ll develop rabies sooner than if you are bitten on the leg.”

It is imperative that anyone in contact with a rabid animal seek treatment, he said. “If the bite has just occurred, you can get the rabies vaccine, which is no more painful than any other injection. You can also receive rabies’ antibodies or anti-serum to fight the virus. Both are successful.”

Because an infected animal can be asymptomatic in the early stages, hunters are advised to wear latex gloves and cover any broken skin when gutting deer or any other wild game.

“Eating the meat of an infected animal would be extremely low-risk because cooking would inactivate any live virus,” Shultz said. “Documented cases from ingestion are low and not well-established.”

The brain and spinal cord of an animal are the riskiest to touch, he said. “There have been cases when individuals have been exposed to neural [spinal cord or brain] matter in a slaughterhouse setting. Those are the parts you want to avoid coming into contact with.”

Raccoons are the most common rabies’ carrier, but feral cats pose the greatest threat to humans because they are likely to have the most contact, according to Dave Wolfgang, an extension veterinarian at Penn State University.

There are various strains of rabies, including a bat strain and a raccoon strain, and feral cats are susceptible to the raccoon strain, he said. “Rabies cases are up slightly in suburban areas. Communities should work hard to trap, spay or neuter and immunize feral cats to try to stop the rabies’ spread.”

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