From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1993:

MAMMOTH LAKES, California––The July 14 death of
an 11-year-old girl from rabies and a series of human deaths
from a rodent-borne hantavirus send a heads-up message to
animal rescuers and health care providers everywhere:
zoonosis, or animal diseases passed to people, can hit any-
one at any time. And the symptoms can go unrecognized.
Kelly Aherndt, an athletic would-be veterinarian,
kept a horse and a coop of pigeons; shared two cats, a col-
lie, and a variety of ducks and chickens with her brother
and two sisters; collected nature magazines; and spent
much of her time in the woods near her home in
Bloomingburg, New York, collecting fossils. Her parents
had warned her repeatedly to avoid raccoons and other
potentially rabid wildlife.

On July 8, Aherndt complained of pains in her
arm. The family pediatrician diagnosed a sprain and pre-
scribed antibiotics for a possible strep throat. July 12, the
pains became sharp and she began hallucinating. Her family
interrupted a camping trip to Lake George to rush her to the
hospital in Saratoga Springs, where her symptoms again
went undiagnosed. The next morning the family took her
back to the pediatrician’s office at the Horton Memorial
Hospital in Middletown. She was flown to the Westchester
County Medical Center in Valhalla on July 14, where she
died from viral encephalits, a symptom of rabies, shortly
after admission on July 14. The evidence of rabies was not
discovered until staff pathologists performed an autopsy,
and the presence of the disease wasn’t confirmed until
August 10.
Aherndt bore no visible bite marks. No one saw
her near any wild animal or any sickly animal. The Aherndt
family animals remain healthy. Rabies can only be trans-
mitted by contact with inflected saliva, brain tissue, or
(rarely) blood. Thus there was no clear cause to suspect
rabies––and how Aherndt became infected
will probably never be known.
Her family and about 20 health
workers have received precautionary rabies
University of California graduate
student Jeanne Messier, 27, on July 30
became the 20th person to die from a previ-
ously unknown hantavirus that has now been
discovered in six southwestern states and, in
mutated form, Louisiana. A wildlife biolo-
gist, Messier spent much of her time study-
ing animals in the field, and dwelled,
authorities said, in a rodent-infested cabin.
Her death was announced the same day that
the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention confirmed that a Santa Barbara
County ranch hand, age 50, died from the
same hantavirus in September 1992, after
capturing several mice for his cats. Three
days before Messier died, Nevada’s first
hantavirus victim, Mary Servant, 24, told
investigators that she probably became
infected while removing a deer mouse killed
by one of her cats. Servant, a Carson City
resident, recovered.
“The question we have to answer,”
said CDCP epidemiologist Dr. Jay Butler,
“is whether this is an extremely rare infec-
tion which is killing most of the people who
become infected, or whether it is very com-
mon but not very serious among most people
who get it.”
Although the hantavirus has been
discovered in several rodent species, it
seems to be most prevalent in deer
mice––just as the rabies pandemic centers on
raccoons, even though any mammal can
become infected, including deer. Four rabid
deer were found in eastern upstate New York
during the third week of August, prompting
state wildlife officials to issue advisory
warnings to hunters.
Rabies spread with trapping
Both rabies and the hantavirus are
spreading. The raccoon rabies strain that
killed Aherndt was confined to a small part
of northern Florida until 1977, when hunters
and trappers released 3,500 Florida raccoons
in an attempt to rebuild the population in
West Virginia. Moving in all directions and
traveling especially fast in the heavily
trapped mid-Atlantic corridor and rural
Pennsylvania, the rabies pandemic reached
both Cleveland, Ohio, and Glens Falls,
New York, this past July.
Trapping and raccoon hunting tend
to accelerate the spread of rabies because the
survivors become more transient in search of
mates. But despite repeated CDCP warnings
that killing raccoons is not the cure, the Ohio
Division of Wildlife has announced that it
expects to propose an open season on rac-
coons––yet continues to permit as many as
1,400 licensed “commercial game propaga-
tors” to breed raccoons for release in hunting
Vaccine near approval
Only in Massachusetts, where
leghold trapping is restricted and raccoon
hunting isn’t popular, has the advance of the
rabies outbreak markedly slowed. Other
states, after an initial burst of raccoon-killing
coincided with soaring confirmed rabies
cases, are now focusing on public education
and becoming interested in Raboral, a genet-
ically engineered rabies vaccine for raccoons
developed by the Wistar Institute in
Philadelphia and manufactured by Rhone
Merieux Inc. in Athens, Georgia. The vac-
cine is embedded in bait balls made from fish
meal and seeded in areas through which vul-
nerable animals may travel. A variant made
to fight fox rabies has been used successfully
in Europe since 1978, after six years of field-
testing, and in Canada since 1986.
Introduction of the vaccine into the U.S. was
long delayed, however, by the opposition of
state wildlife departments, the National
Wildlife Federation, and the National
Audubon Society, who officially worried
about setting a precedent for releasing geneti-
cally engineered organisms (although the
organism involved in a rabies vaccine is
dead) and unofficially in many instances
seemed mainly concerned with protecting
their rationale for promoting hunting.
Raboral has now proved effective
and environmentally safe through two years
of field-testing in Virginia, Pennsylvania,
and New Jersey. Both New York and Texas,
which has had recent outbreaks of rabies
among coyotes, have applied to join the test-
ing program––and have declared interest in
using the vaccine on as wide a scale as possi-
ble, as soon as possible.
Dr. Robert Miller, chief veterinari-
an in the USDA Office of Veterinary
Biologics, told The New York Times in mid-
August that a final decision on approval of
the vaccine is due within six months.
Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.