The Trumbull County Health Department is urging area residents to take steps to prevent the spread of rabies after receiving three reports of human exposure.
The exposure occurred when feral cats with rabies bit or scratched residents in Champion, Liberty and Fowler. In all three cases, the residents received a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment, or a series of injections that provides antibodies against the rabies virus.
"First of all, if it hadn't been reported to us, we wouldn't have followed up, and people could be exposed and not realize it," warned nursing director Sandra Swann.
Rabies is a fatal disease that is transmitted through the saliva of animals. Humans can contract rabies if they handle or are bitten by an animal that has the disease, even if the animal isn't exhibiting symptoms.
Rabies kills more than 55,000 people worldwide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, the CDC estimates that 40,000 people are given post-exposure treatment.
More than 90 percent of all rabid animals reported to the CDC each year occur in wildlife and mainly include raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats, according to the CDC. People can be exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals such as cats or dogs that have contracted the disease from infected wildlife.
"We're very concerned about this because this is the third cat positive for rabies," Swann said. Two of the cases were confirmed to have a raccoon strain, which can jump species, she said. The third case is still pending, but Swann said they suspect it is also the raccoon strain.
"They were feral cats, cats that are out roaming that people have attracted to their property because they're feeding them," she said. In the first reported case, there were young children outside who were petting the infected cat, she said.
"The concern is the interaction of the wild animals with the cats," said Frank Migliozzi, environmental director with the Trumbull County Health Department. "Homeowners are putting food out and it's attracting more than just the domestic cats that they're trying to take care of. They're potentially putting all of their animals at risk," he said.
Swann said animals infected with rabies are infectious and begin shedding the virus five days before they start showing any symptoms.
"Eventually the rabies will kill that animal; it's a neurological disease. They'll lunge at other animals and lunge at people, eventually they'll die, but in the meantime you don't know who they have scratched and bitten, especially out in the wild, and that's how the disease spreads," she explained. "We don't want humans being bitten and scratched," she said.
Swann said there were no cases of rabies-infected cats last year in Trumbull County, with only one positive raccoon confirmed.
Migliozzi and Swann say prevention is the best remedy for rabies, and the best form of prevention is vaccination, which is required by law for owners to have administered regularly to their dogs, cats and ferrets. The Trumbull County Veterinary Medical Association offers a low-cost vaccine clinic for dogs and cats each June.
Migliozzi said he understands the desire to care for animals in need, but stresses the dangers of doing so.
"I have two cats. If a stray cat comes onto my property, I shoo it away, and I would never consider feeding it, because I don't want something happening to my cats. That's how afraid I am," he said.
Migliozzi said the only way to confirm whether an animal has rabies is to euthanize it and test it.
"If you go out and feed them and they bite you, you're going to have to report it, and you're going to have no choice but to euthanize it and test it, so you're not doing it any favors," he said.
Swann said in the event that someone wanted to take in a stray cat they had been feeding, they should not attempt to trap the animal themselves.
"My advice would be if you're an animal lover and a stray cat wanders onto your property, have a professional trap it and then follow up with a veterinarian," she said, which likely will involve the animal being quarantined and then vaccinated.
"It takes everybody's part to control the situation, to protect the public from human exposure and protect their pets," said Migliozzi.