September 25, 1995
Web posted at: 2:55 p.m. EDT (1855 GMT)
From Technology Correspondent Miles O'Brien
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- East Providence, Rhode Island, isn't the wild woods. As far as residents Bill and Charline Ritinski were concerned, the neighborhood where they live was "a place where nothing happens, quite frankly."
But this summer, Bill, Charline -- and Walter -- learned the hard way that is not true. Not far from their home, Walter the fox terrier was attacked by a cat. "The cat actually jumped onto his head and was straddling his chest with hind paws gripping into his side and clawing at the top of his head," Mrs. Ritinski said.
Although the feline culprit was never captured, animal control officer John Smith is certain it was one of at least two rabid cats that attacked eight victims -- including him - - over two weeks in July. "As I was taking [the other cat] out of the box, it reached out and it scratched me in the leg. Then we went to test the cat because it looked seriously ill, and it turned out it did have rabies," Smith said.
Smith, Walter and the others received inoculations in time. It's a good thing, because the bullet-shaped rabies virus never misses its target. "There is no treatment for rabies," cautioned Charles Rupprecht, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "If you are showing signs of rabies, you bought the farm. You hope that your will is made out. To see an actual rabid human is an awful experience. It is not a quick death, it is not that pleasant death in your sleep. It's an excruciating, horrible death."
Worldwide, about 25,000 people, mostly children, die of rabies each year. And while rabies deaths are rare in the United States, they remain a fact of life. The most recent occurred last March in Lewis County, Washington, where a four-year-old girl died of rabies transmitted from a bat.
Fear of exposure to rabies in the United States may be warranted. The country is in the midst of a full-blown outbreak transmitted primarily by raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes. Health officials are counting about 10,000 rabies cases a year in the country, twice as many as they encountered 20 years ago. And, said Larry Glickman of Purdue University, "Some states over the past two or three years have seen a three or four hundred percent increase in the number of rabid animals. With the increase in the number of rabid animals comes increasing exposures to humans." Controlling rabies in the wild is clearly not as easy as a trip to the vet, but the CDC has high hopes for an ongoing experiment in which vaccine-laced bait is dropped into areas where rabid wild animals are a problem. "You want to make coyote bubble gum. You want the animal to chew on this," explained Rupprecht, who developed the oral vaccine. Using gene-splicing techniques, he isolated a small portion of the rabies virus and used it to create the vaccine. It contains enough of the virus to trigger an animal's immune system so it becomes rabies resistant, but not enough to cause the disease. So even if a human being would happen to eat the smelly bait, there would be no ill effects. "It is a very small risk. It is to the point where we are talking about perceptions rather than actuality," Rupprecht said.
But can the bait drops currently under way in Texas and the Northeast effectively stem the tide? Scientists in Europe and Canada report success with similar programs. After years of dropping vaccine-laden baits, rabies has nearly been eradicated on the European continent. And, Rupprecht said, "As the number of vaccine doses have gone up, the prevalence of wildlife rabies has gone down. So we know it is not just academic to ask, 'Can we reach free-ranging animals?' We can."
But Rupprecht's critics disagree. They say that to stop the outbreak, 90 percent of the wild raccoon population would have to take the bait, which seems highly unlikely. And they are concerned about unforeseen consequences of releasing a mutant virus. "We have methods in this country to control rabies as far as a human disease is concerned, and we do not need this vaccine and it does not work," said Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Even if it does ultimately work, there is widespread agreement that wildlife inoculations should not be seen as a substitute for vaccinating domestic animals. The folks in East Providence don't need to be convinced the shots are important: "Everyone has gone out and made sure their vaccinations are up to date," said Charline Ritinski. "It is a very small price to pay: for eight dollars you get peace of mind."
Copyright © 1995 Cable News Network, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.