BATH — Eleven people have been attacked by rabid animals in Brunswick and Bath since last year, but local, state and federal officials have not taken steps to curb the rabies outbreak, and have no plans to disperse bait containing rabies vaccinations.

So far this year, Bath has seen 13 animals test positive for rabies. A total of 87 wild animals have tested positive for rabies statewide this year, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barbara Senecal was attacked by a fox getting her mail on Woodland Drive on June 2018. A neighbor helped subdue the fox while she called for police. Both ended up getting post rabies exposure shots.

Senecal still carries a bat with her when she walks to the mailbox and is prepared to run.

“I wish they would look into it because (rabies) seems pretty widespread in the Bath-Brunswick area,” she said. “Whatever they can do.”

Treatment rates for rabies have been higher than average for a second year at Mid Coast Hospital. For the past decade the hospital’s emergency department has treated between 10 and 30 patients annually for rabies exposure. In 2018, the department treated more than 50 people for rabies exposure. So far this year, the department has seen 40 to 50 people in the emergency room with rabies concerns and 37 of them received immunoglobulin, according to Dr. Ranjiv Advani, the medical director of the Mid Coast Hospital Emergency Department.

Seven people were attacked by rabid foxes in Brunswick between June and July 2018 — including four on Moody Road on the same day. One of the four people attacked on July 27 was a 5-year-old girl playing in her yard, along with her mother who ran to her rescue.

Animal attacks on humans subsided in Brunswick after the Moody Road fox was killed, but the outbreak made its way to Bath. A 6-year-old girl was bitten by a rabid fox on Bumpy Hill Road in August and an 87-year-old man was attacked by a fox on Getchell Street in September. On Nov. 3, a 52-year-old man was knocked over and bitten by a rabid fox and pinned against his home while in his backyard on Washington Street.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture drops oral rabies vaccine baits by air and ground every year in northeastern Maine to stem the spread of raccoon rabies, the department said it has no plans to distribute baits in the Midcoast.

The fishmeal-coated bait is designed to target raccoons, the species with the highest number of rabies cases in the eastern U.S. and can also be effective in targeting other wildlife such as foxes and coyotes, according to the USDA.

USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the department is working to eradicate rabies in the U.S. Eliminating rabies in the raccoon population is expected to take at least 30 years.

Before it can move its oral rabies vaccination zone to encompass the Brunswick area, the USDA must eliminate rabies in the northeast part of Maine, Espinosa said. Spot treating Brunswick or Bath for an outbreak would not be effective, Espinosa said, and it is cost-prohibitive to drop the baits statewide.

“Think of a flower bed,” she said in a 2018 interview. “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.”

Asked on Thursday if enough has been done to address rabies in the Midcoast, Espinosa said, “I can’t answer that.”

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife isn’t looking at baiting in the Midcoast either. State wildlife biologist Scott Lindsay said the number of animals that tested positive with rabies is still been fairly stable. At this point, the rabies threat does not rise to the level that would cause the department to begin a regional baiting program.

However, there is no threshold in the state’s rabies management guidelines for how many cases or attacks trigger action by the state.

Lindsay said he is recommending the state’s rabies working group determine criteria for starting a baiting program.

He said it would take 150 to 200 baits per square kilometer to saturate an area. The baits would likely need to be dispersed by hand in more populated areas like Bath, he said, making it a labor-intensive and costly operation.

“I understand how it can sound attractive and may be a good option in circumstances, but at this point it doesn’t seem to be justified and I think there are other things that can be done,” Lindsay said.

“As far as what is being done about (rabies), at this point we are really sustaining the course with the same recommendations you have probably heard many times but generally the do work and tend to be very effective,” said Lindsay. “General vigilance of being outside, even when in suburban and urban areas. It’s just about realizing what is around you.”

Asked what he’d say to someone who was attacked by a rabid animal, Lindsay responded with a car accident analogy.

“You can tell people all you want to drive the speed limit, below the speed limit, pay attention, don’t operate your phone, try to minimize distractions, use good windshield wipers,” he said. “You can advise people to do everything right, but still accidents are going to happen and there’s no way you can prevent those accidents.”

Most Mainers, Lindsay said, live in areas that overlap wildlife habitat, increasing the chances of encountering a wild animal.

“Most of those times those animals are not going to be a threat,” he said. “There’s a very small percentage of animals under the influence of this virus that are not going to act like healthy normal animals.”

Rabies is fatal if untreated. If someone is bitten, the treatment is almost 100% effective, Lindsay said.

“Once medical treatment is sought, we have high confidence that these can at least be handled through the health care system,” Lindsay said.

Ann Harford, Bath’s animal control officer of 28 years, said she’s dealt with spikes in rabies in animals before, but never as many animal attacks on humans as in this outbreak.

“It’s frightening for them to have to go through the post-exposure treatment,” she said.

She believes this uptick in attacks is because foxes, which are faster than skunks or raccoons, are contracting the virus. Residents’ garbage and compost may be attracting more rodents to the area, which then draws in more foxes who prey on them.

Harford said she doesn’t know how successful or how safe it is to use baited vaccinations in areas like Bath. Pets could be at risk of overvaccination, she said.

“I’m not a biologist and I don’t know how much they’ve been able to tell by the actual dropping they do how well it works,” she said.

Bath City Manager Peter Owen said staff have been talking about what the city can do about the outbreak. He encouraged residents to use common sense. For example, encouraging people not to put out food that attracts animals close to home.

“I think at this point we don’t see really taking any extreme action just because the weather is going to take care of this,” Owen said.

While a baiting program was broached, “no one could really answer the details of that,” Owen said, such as the health effects if pets consume the bait.

He said staff will research options over the winter, but the next steps depend on whether the rabies outbreak continues next year.

“I think they should try something,” said Norman Kenney, the 87-year-old who was attacked by a fox in his backyard on Getchell Street in Bath in September. He managed to eventually kill the young fox by stepping on its neck. “Try something. If it doesn’t work, it’s better than not trying at all.”


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