Confirmed cases of rabies in Maine are on a pace to be at their lowest level in more than 20 years in 2015.

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause death if left untreated. 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.

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. In Maine, the most commonly infected animals are skunks, raccoons, bats, and foxes.

Rabies cases have a history of ebbing and flowing, with waves of cases cresting for a few years, then falling off to lower levels. In the late 1990s, for instance, there were years with more than 240 confirmed cases reported; in the past decade, there was a high of 127 confirmed cases in 2006.

Since then, however, there have been fewer confirmed rabies cases, with there only being 43 last year in Maine. This year could have even fewer: Through the end of September, there were just 21, including just one locally, from Bradley in August. Should that trend continue, that would be the least confirmed cases of rabies in the state since 1994, when there were just ten.

With this being a popular time of year for hunting or just a stroll in the woods, the public is reminded of steps that should be taken to avoid rabies. The simplest is to avoid contact with wild animals; also, make sure your dog or cat is up-to-date on rabies vaccination.

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