Recently released data from the state indicated that the number of rabies cases reported in Maine fell to its lowest level in 20 years.

Accoding to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 43 confirmed cases of rabies in Maine last year – including just one locally in Old Town – which was down from 51 the previous year. In other recent years, the trend had been toward 50 to 65 or so cases reported annually, with an occasional spike into the eighties.

Those numbers are a huge decline from rabies numbers of the mid to late 1990s. After there were just 10 cases of rabies reported in the state in 1994, the number of cases started shooting up at a virulent strain worked its way into Maine. Reported cases peaked at 244 in 1999 before starting to drop again – something that typically happens with rabies after a few years; the disease has periodic cycles where its incident rate climbs, then falls.

So far this year, there have been just four cases of rabies reported in the state, none locally; that is the exact same number of cases that there were at this time last year. The harsh winter, however, may be playing a part in keeping the number of cases down so far; whether they will start climbing again in the weeks ahead remains to be seen. The state, however, as always urges caution and offers the following fact sheet explaining rabies and how you can avoid it.

What is rabies? Rabies is a disease that is caused by a virus. It affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause death if left untreated. Rabies in people is very rare in the United States, but rabies in animals – especially wildlife – is common in most parts of the country including Maine. An animal with rabies is called a “rabid” animal.

How is rabies spread? The rabies virus lives in the saliva, brain and spinal cord (neural tissue) of infected animals. It is spread when a rabid animal bites or scratches a person or animal, or if a rabid animal’s saliva or neural tissue comes in contact with a person or animal’s mouth, nose or eyes, or enters a cut in the skin. Rabies is not spread by petting or touching dried saliva, blood, urine, or feces of a rabid animal.

What animals can carry rabies? In Maine, the most commonly infected animals are skunks, raccoons, bats, and foxes. Rabies can infect any animal that has hair, but is very rare among small rodents like squirrels, rats, mice, and chipmunks. Bat exposures are often difficult to detect, especially in the cases of a sleeping person awakening to a bat in the room or an adult witnessing a bat in a room with a previously unattended child, mentally disabled person, or intoxicated person.

What is a rabies exposure? A rabies exposure happens when the saliva or neural tissue of a rabid animal comes in contact with a person or animal through a bite or scratch, cut in the skin, or gets into the eyes, nose, or mouth.

How can I prevent exposure to rabies? Generally, you can avoid contact with wild animals. Also, make sure your dog or cat is up-to-date on rabies vaccination.

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