Health authorities issue rabies reminder warnings after Latvian fatality

Foxes are a known vector for rabies. If in doubt, stay away or go to the nearest emergency room if bitten.
Foxes are a known vector for rabies. If in doubt, stay away or go to the nearest emergency room if bitten. Source: Pikkmets

The Health Board (Terviseamet) and Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) have issued a public reminder to exercise caution around wild or unknown domestic animals in Estonia, particularly if they exhibit unusual behavior, due to the risk of rabies infections.

Any individual coming into contact with animals in such cases should go to the nearest emergency room, the authorities add.

While Estonia has been rabies-free for several years, in neighboring Latvia, a 55-year-old died in late November after contracting the disease in India, ERR reports.

"Although Estonia has been considered a rabies-free country as of 2013, an animal taken abroad may contract the disease and bring it into the country on return," Irina Dontchenko of the Health Board's department of infectious disease surveillance and epidemic control said.

Dontchenko also strongly recommended raising awareness among children who may be tempted to pet strange animals.

"Rabies is an acute disorder of the central nervous system which causes animals to behave differently. As a result, wild animals can be seemingly friendly and approach humans," Dontchenko said.

Infection with the rabies virus begins when the saliva of a diseased animal enters via a bite, scratch or wound. 

The pathogen stays in the entrance conduit for about a week, where it propagates, before travelling via the nerve system to the spinal cord and brain, reaching the eyes, heart, skin and mouth.

The average incubation period for rabies is one to two months, but ranges hugely from a minimum of one week to a maximum of over a year. The length of the latency period depends on the site of entry of the virus, usually the further from the cerebral cortex, the longer the period.

The virus multiplies in the salivary glands and is secreted by saliva, which can carry the agent up to two weeks before an animal becomes obviously sick. 

Symptoms start with nausea, vomiting, fatigue, fever and other non-specific symptoms. Some sufferers experience pain, inflammation, tingling or tingling sensations at the wound site.

As rabies progresses, breathing problems occur, which are manifested by periodic deep breathing or gasping; later symptoms can differ from patient to patient and can include signs of irritation and aggression, loss of orientation, muscle twitching and cramps, causing severe pain in the neck and throat when swallowing or even aversion to water and fluids (hydrophobia). Throughout this phase, a patient is conscious.

Rabies can also take a more inhibited form, usually resulting in death due to cardiac or respiratory arrest.

There is no known cure for rabies once infected, and it is always fatal in humans and animals.

Vaccination is mandatory

"We remind pet owners that pet rabies vaccination has been mandatory in Estonia for over 65 years," said Enel Niine, project director at the VTA, who added it is the responsibility of every pet owner to ensure that their pet is vaccinated against rabies at least every two years.

"In addition, animals should not be allowed to roam around freely, as they may come in contact with strange animals [that way]," said Niin, reiterating that direct contact with wild animals or unknown domestic animals should be avoided, even if they seem friendly.

Members of the public should also notify the VTA or police if they spot wild or domestic animals behaving erratically.

Wild animals also get vaccinated

Wild animals living in border areas of Estonia are also vaccinated against rabies, twice a year.

In addition, in cooperation with the Estonian Hunters' Association, known major potential rabies vectors in the wild, principally foxes and raccoon dogs, are monitored, with all domestic and wild animals suspected of being infected with rabies notified to the veterinary service.

Over 1,000 laboratory tests related with rabies are conducted per year, ERR reports.

The last known animal infected with rabies to be found in Estonia was a raccoon dog, intercepted about a kilometer inside the Estonian border, adjacent to Russia's Pskov oblast.

Only pets which have received rabies vaccinations are permitted into Estonia.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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