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Skunk attack raises rabies concerns

BRATTLEBORO—A skunk that attacked a pre-schooler in Brattleboro last week remains at large.

Efforts to find the animal by Brattleboro animal control officer Cathy Barrows and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department have been unsuccessful.

According to Dr. Bob Johnson, the public health veterinarian for the Vermont Department of Health, there has not been confirmation that the skunk was rabid, although the behavior of the animal was consistent with rabies.

Johnson said that rabies is a virus that attacks the brain and the salivary glands, which is why animals infected with the disease act strangely.

“Animals can’t get pretty feisty when they’re rabid,” said Johnson.

According to police reports, the skunk bit a 3-year-old boy on the leg during a pre-school program at All Souls Church in West Brattleboro, but the bite wasn’t deep because his socks partially protected him.

As a precaution, the child is undergoing a round of seven shots of post-rabies-exposure vaccines.

In a similar attack in Barre on July 1, a grey fox bit a man on the ankle, and Vermont Department of Health biologists confirmed that the animal was rabid. The fox was found dead the next day, and the victim is receiving post-exposure vaccines.

Once an animal is infected, Johnson said, it dies within days from the disease, which explains why the Barre fox was found dead and why the Brattleboro skunk — if rabid — can’t be located.

Johnson said that 26  cases of rabid animals have been reported so far this year in Vermont, about average for the state. As for cases of humans contracting rabies, Johnson said it is extremely rare, with only one or two cases nationally each year.

“We don’t want cause panic,” said Johnson, “but if people make sure their pets are up to date with their shots, keep their distance from wildlife, and make sure they have a plan if an attack happens, they will be safe from rabies.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #58 (Wednesday, July 14, 2010).

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