BRUNSWICK — Despite seven people being attacked by rabid foxes in Brunswick this summer, experts are saying little can be done to stop it from happening again.

They say the best that can be done is educating the public and urging people to take measures to protect themselves from wild animals that may carry the virus.

The latest attacks took place on Moody Road July 27, when four people had a run-in with a rabid fox. Those attacked included a five-year-old girl playing in her yard and the girl’s mother, who was bitten while fending off the animal.

The fox believed to be the one that bit three people along Moody Road in Brunswick walks through the yard of Alex Hallett at 119 Moody Road late Friday afternoon. Hallett took the photo from a second-floor window of his house.

To help educate the public, Brunswick Animal Control Officer Heidi Nelson has planned a public rabies forum at 5 p.m. Aug. 9 in council chambers at the Brunswick town hall. Experts expected at the forum include representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state veterinarian, a game warden and an Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist. The forum will be streamed live and recorded on cable access channel TV3 in Brunswick.

“Some folks are really scared,” Nelson said, “and rightfully so, to some degree.”

But rabies incidents are not unusual in Brunswick. A disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, rabies is typically spread through a bitE or scratch from a wild animal that has the virus. If left untreated, it can lead to death.

“There really isn’t much we can do other than educating the public,” said Nelson. “We have been trying to do that, and address their questions and concerns, which is why I have worked very hard this week to get this meeting put together for the people of Brunswick to address people on the front lines.”

STOPPING THE SPREAD

Not including the July 27 attack, The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has counted 42 confirmed cases of rabies so far this year. Of the 42, seven have occurred in the Midcoast area, including four encounters in Brunswick with aggressive, rabid animals. In addition, there has been one confirmed case of rabies each in Bowdoin, Lisbon and Lisbon Falls.

Most of the rabies cases are in southern and central Maine, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. The federal program managing rabies has to eliminate the risk of further rabies spread in northern Maine before it can focus on the southern part of the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday it would distribute more than 351,000 oral rabies vaccine baits this week in northeastern Maine through its Wildlife Services program. It’s part of the state’s ongoing efforts to reduce the occurrence of raccoon rabies.

Nelson said she’s been asked repeatedly why no one is dropping the fishmeal-coated vaccine bait in Brunswick. The reason, she explained, is that it’s just not applicable.

Tanya Espinosa, spokeswoman for the USDA, reinforced that when asked why the southern portion of the state wasn’t being targeted despite the spate of attacks that have cropped up.

“In terms of landscape management, wildlife management in general typically is focused at the population level,” Espinosa wrote in an email to The Times Record. “Rabies management is wildlife management and requires a level of immunity in a population (herd immunity) to be effective. It would not be cost effective or practical to manage rabies in small isolated areas because there is rabies pressure in surrounding populations.”

The typical oral rabies vaccine zone has a 25-mile width and is placed ahead of rabies activity to create a buffer between diseased and non-diseased animals, according to Espinosa.

“Think of a flower bed,” she said. “If you weed the entire flower bed, you now have a flower bed that is ready to plant, whereas if you only weed one or two spots, you only have two spots but you are constantly fighting the weeds in the surrounding area as they are looking to get a foothold in the area that is weeded.”

The USDA is continuing to explore ways to improve its rabies vaccination strategies through research. It is also using an enhanced rabies surveillance program to better track where rabies activity is in the state and where it may be increasing.

“Rabies elimination is a long-term goal that will include current and novel strategies, but will require sustainable resources in order to succeeded,” Espinosa wrote. “We just now have spent 7 years field testing a novel vaccine (still not licensed) that will give us the tool to pursue elimination, but will take additional resources to aggressively move toward elimination.”

While there are plans to eliminate raccoon rabies over the next 30 years, including in Maine, the USDA is still learning about oral vaccination, wildlife populations and ecology.

State Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said she’s been hearing about rabies concerns from constituents, though it hasn’t spurred nearly as many calls as the browntail moth infestation. She has been concerned about the rabies cases herself.

“I have two dogs and every time I go for a jog I’m thinking about it,” she said. “Everyone seems to hope that we can do something but … we’re limited by science to eliminate the outbreak.”

Everything she’s heard and read indicates that rabies comes in cycles, Daughtry said, “and the scary thing is this has to play itself out so we have to be on alert and keep watch.”

There are excellent people from the Brunswick Police Department and the state who are on the ground working to protect people, she said.

“I think it shows us why it’s so important to fund research and development at our state universities,” she added. “This is literally at the forefront of what we should be doing.”

STAYING AWARE

Those who have already had encounters with rabid animals urge vigilance.

Trish Parker, whose granddaughter is the 5-year-old attacked a week ago, said she scared away a different, oddly behaving fox the week before the Moody Road attacks. Brunswick police killed the fox believed to be involved in the Moody Road attacks after it attacked a fourth person last Friday, which tested positive for rabies.

“People shouldn’t assume that because that particular fox was ‘dispatched,’ that there aren’t others out there that are sick as well,” Parker said. “People need to be extra vigilant for a while until the report of sightings have ended.”

Barbara Senecal was attacked while getting her mail on Woodland Drive June 17. The 72-year-old said she now carries a bat with her to the mailbox.

“I don’t want to take a chance. Plus I have grandchildren that walk that road,” she said Thursday.

It’s been a long ordeal, but the wounds are healing on her legs and she’s doing fine, Senecal said.

“I have a couple of nightmares about it but it seems to be gone now,” she said. “I can deal with it. I wouldn’t like to see it happen to anybody else.”

In 15 years of walking on that road, she’s never seen anything wild other than a chipmunk. She said the best thing people can do is be very alert and aware of their surroundings.

Scott Lindsay, a regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said last month that it is not unusual to have wild animals in fairly close proximity to people.

“Rabies occurrences have been tracked for many decades now and I think what is always revealed is it is cyclic and it is not unusual to see occurrences in a particular area rise, then subside,” he said.

There do seem to be more ebbs and flows or rabies cases in more populated areas, Lindsay said.

Small animals most prone to rabies — raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats — have learned to live often undetected near humans and do well in developed areas, he said.

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PROTECTION & PREVENTION

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention offered some things people can do to reduce the risk of exposure to themselves and their pets:

• Make sure pets are vaccinated against rabies. By law, all dogs and cats must be vaccinated.

• Avoid contact with all wild animals and any animal that you do not know.

• Fasten trashcan lids tightly and do not leave pet food outside. Leaving food accessible brings animals like skunks and raccoons close to your home.

• Talk to a trained exterminator or contractor about “bat-proofing” your home.

• Do not handle sick or hurt wild animals yourself; call your animal control officer, Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife game warden, or a wildlife rehabilitator.

• Animal control officers, Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife game wardens, veterinarians and their assistants, and others who have a lot of contact with stray animals or wildlife should think about getting the pre-exposure rabies vaccine.

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