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Rabid raccoons found in New York City for first time in years

For the first time since 2011, rabid raccoons have been found in New York City. Health officials say they've identified four rabid raccoons in and around northern Manhattan's Inwood Hill Park since January, and two others in the Bronx and Staten Island.

The New York City Department of Health is advising people to vaccinate their pets and to stay away from raccoons and other wild animals that can carry rabies.

"Rabies is a serious illness that poses a danger for you and your pets," Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said in a statement. "Keep a close eye on your pets when you take them outside and if you see a wild animal – such as a raccoon – maintain a safe distance and do not approach it. Get your pets vaccinated against rabies, and if you think they've been bitten by a rabid animal, call 311," the city government information line.

Rabies infection is rare in the United States, but it does still occur. In New York City, rabid raccoons were not seen for years following an intensive vaccination effort eight years ago where the Health Department trapped, vaccinated and released almost 500 raccoons in and around Central Park. 

But so far this year, officials have identified six rabid raccoons in New York City: four in Manhattan, one in the Bronx and one in Staten Island. No bites or exposures connected to these animals have been reported.

How is rabies transmitted?

Rabies is a viral disease that's transmitted to humans and other mammals through the saliva of an infected animal that bites or scratches them. The majority of rabies cases reported to the CDC each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.

It's not necessarily possible to tell by looking if an animal has rabies, but its behavior may offer clues. A rabid animal may act hostile and try to bite, or it could move unusually slowly and seem to lose its natural fear of humans. If a nocturnal animal like a possum or raccoon is out in the daytime and doesn't seem scared of humans, there's a chance it could have rabies.

The Health Department advises New Yorkers to report any animal that seems sick, disoriented or unusually placid or aggressive.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

Rabies affects the central nervous system and, if left untreated, attacks the brain and ultimately causes death.

Death usually occurs within a few days after symptoms appear. That's why it's extremely important to get preventive treatment immediately if you think you might have been exposed to rabies. Don't wait and see if symptoms develop — by then, it will be too late.

If a person is infected, early symptoms of rabies include fever, headache, general weakness or discomfort, and a prickling or itching sensation in the area of the bite. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms will develop, including insomnia, anxiety, confusion, and agitation. Partial paralysis may set in and the person may have hallucinations and delirium. The infected person may experience an increase in saliva, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water) because of the difficulty swallowing. 

What is the treatment for rabies?

The rabies vaccine — a series of shots — can prevent the disease from developing if treatment begins soon after a person was exposed.

See your doctor if you or your child have been bitten or scratched by a wild animal, or any animal if you don't know whether it's been vaccinated or not. Your doctor, possibly in consultation with state or local health authorities, will decide if you need the rabies vaccine.

Death from rabies is very rare in the United States, with only one or two fatalities occurring each year. The statistics are different in less developed nations, where more than 55,000 people die each year from the disease, mostly in Africa and Asia.

Protecting your pet

For pet owners, it's important to visit your veterinarian regularly and keep rabies vaccinations up to date.

If a pet isn't vaccinated and gets exposed to a rabid animal, the CDC says it should be euthanized immediately. If a pet owner does not wish to do this, the animal needs to be isolated for six months and vaccinated one month before being released.

Keeping cats and ferrets indoors and keeping dogs closely supervised when outside can also help protect them.

Finally, the CDC recommends calling animal control to remove all stray animals from your neighborhood since they may be unvaccinated.