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Rabies History in New York State

Rabies in New York State was initially a disease carried by domestic dogs, a problem brought to all of North America by European settlers in the 1700s. With the advent of record keeping in the 1930s, reported cases of animal rabies fluctuated between 20 and 600 annually. Most cases were recorded in domestic dogs although there was also some spillover to livestock. From 1925 until 1944 there were 10 human rabies fatalities, all linked to domestic dog contact.

Postwar compulsory canine vaccination programs in New York controlled the rabies cycle in domestic dogs by the early 1950s, but rabies in foxes spread concomitantly into the state from the south. Wildlife rabies has cycled in terrestrial carnivores in some areas of the state since the 1950s, mainly in red foxes, skunks and raccoons. The most persistent problems until 1990 were periodic rabies incursions into red fox populations in northern New York counties. The disease found its way to northern New York from the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Canada, where rabies was enzootic. See attached map (Ontario Red Fox Variant, Raccoon Rabies Variant). Please contact us (518-485-6464) for image map information in an alternate format.

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A rabies outbreak of unprecedented proportions spread into New York State raccoon populations from the south in 1990, spreading northward across the state at about 20 miles per year since its arrival. The 2,746 animal rabies cases confirmed in the state in 1993--85% in raccoons--was the greatest one-state annual total in the history of the United States. A list of positives by species is available here. (Please contact us (518-485-6464) for image chart information in an alternate format.)

Since 1957, rabies also has been diagnosed in bats each year, with bat rabies case totals ranging from 20 to 84 annually. Rabies has occasionally been transmitted from bats to terrestrial mammals in New York, primarily to domestic cats, grey foxes and horses. The two most recent human rabies deaths in the State (1993 and 1995) were of bat rabies origin. The 1993 death was the first rabies death in New York State 49 years. Of 21 indigenously acquired human rabies cases in the United States since 1990, 19 are attributable to bat rabies exposure.

Perhaps most disturbingly, only in two of the 19 cases was there a reported bite, while in another five reports it was concluded some physical contact, without an evident bite, may have occurred. In a number of the remaining 12 cases one or more indoor encounters with a bat had been reported, with no recognized contact.

This repeated pattern of human rabies infections with bat-associated rabies variants, in the absence of a recognized bite but following a bat encounter has resulted in changing bat-encounter rabies guidelines in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that post-exposure rabies treatment is appropriate even in the absence of a demonstrable bite or scratch, in situations where there is reasonable probability that contact occurred. Such encounters may include: a sleeping person awakes to find a bat in the room or an adult witnesses a bat in the room with a previously unattended child, mentally disabled person, or intoxicated person.