A rabid fox attacked two people in Peekskill, NY on January 16th, 2023, leading to renewed concerns over the spread of rabies in suburban areas. The fox later tested positive for rabies and was euthanized. Local health officials are now working aggressively to contain the outbreak and prevent further transmission to humans and pets.
Background on Rabies
Rabies is an acute viral disease that affects the nervous system of humans and other mammals. It has one of the highest mortality rates of any infection, with nearly 100% of victims dying once symptoms appear.
The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of an infected animal, most commonly through bites. In the US, wild animals like foxes, skunks, bats, and raccoons are the most common wildlife carriers. Rabid animals often display uncharacteristic behavior like aggression, impaired movement, and lack of fear towards humans.
Once the rabies virus reaches the brain or spinal cord, it causes swelling and inflammation of the nervous tissue, leading to symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue, disorientation, anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, difficulty swallowing, excess salivation, paralysis, and uncontrolled muscle spasms. Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.
Prior to recent decades, rabies was most commonly transmitted via domestic dogs. But due to extensive pet vaccination programs starting in the 1950s, bat rabies variants have now become the leading cause of human rabies deaths in the US. Raccoons, skunks, and foxes still remain common carriers that can transmit the virus to pets and humans as well.
While human rabies deaths are rare in the US, averaging about 1-3 per year, the treatment is extremely expensive and labor-intensive. Preventative measures like pet vaccinations and avoiding contact with wild animals are key to containing outbreaks.
Details on the Peekskill Fox Attacks
On January 16th, 2023 at approximately 2 PM, an aggressive fox attacked two individuals behind a commercial building on 1200 Main Street in Peekskill.
62-year old John Smith, an employee of ABC Manufacturing, was taking out trash when he encountered the fox. The fox bit him on his right boot before running off. Fellow employee Jane Doe, 48, then tried to chase the fox away when it circled back around. At that point the fox bit Doe on her left calf.
Another employee called 911 and both victims were transported to Peekskill Hospital Center for evaluation and treatment. First responders located and euthanized the fox shortly afterwards and sent brain tissue samples to the state health department for rabies testing.
Test results confirmed on January 17th that the fox was indeed rabid. Officials have been working to identify and contact individuals that may have had contact with the fox in order to begin post-exposure prophylaxis treatment.
Rabies Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) Treatment:
- Administered to prevent the onset of rabies after exposure
- Involves a dose of rabies immune globulin and 4 doses of rabies vaccine over 14 days
- Extremely effective in preventing the virus from infecting the nervous system when administered promptly after exposure
The two bite victims have started receiving PEP treatment.
Risk of Rabies Spreading
While the Peekskill attacks mark Westchester County’s first confirmed rabid animal of 2023, officials have noted it is still early in the year for rabies activity. The colder months see fewer documented cases prior to spring and summer, when the virus typically spikes along with increased wildlife activity.
Plus, foxes have large territories spanning several miles. The rabid Peekskill fox likely roamed outside city limits as well, meaning potential for additional human and pet contact. Animals can be infectious for up to 10 days prior to showing clinical symptoms.
Westchester County logged nearly 30 rabid animals in 2022 – 14 raccoons, 8 bats, 5 skunks and 2 foxes. State health officials anticipate cases rising in early spring.
Preventative Steps Underway
The Westchester County Department of Health has launched rabies awareness campaign in the aftermath of the Peekskill fox incident targeting suburban homeowners, schools and veterinarians. Officials are dispensing educational material urging residents to keep pets up to date on rabies shots and avoid contact with wild animals exhibiting strange behaviors.
Key prevention tips being shared:
- Vaccinate pets – Indoor pets can still encounter bats that enter homes. Vaccines protect pets for 3 years.
- Do not feed or touch wild animals, even baby animals
- Do not try to nurse sick wildlife back to health. Call animal control instead.
- Safely trap unwanted wildlife on your property and contact wildlife removal services
- Keep trash cans covered and avoid leaving pet food outdoors
- Close up any openings in homes and structures that could allow wildlife entry
In addition, state and county health departments are working jointly to distribute rabies vaccine packets that allow veterinarians to host local rabies vaccination clinics in the community.
Officials still believe the first line of defense remains educating the public to stay vigilant and seek prompt PEP treatment if bitten or scratched by wildlife. All bites, scratches and contact with bodily fluids should be reported immediately, even if occurring while pets are outside off-leash.
Outlook Going Forward
Wildlife officials will maintain close surveillance in Westchester County to determine if there are additional pockets of rabid animal populations emerging.
The Peekskill victims will need to complete their 4-shot PEP vaccine regimens over the next two weeks and avoid contact with possible rabies carriers during that time.
Continued public cooperation by avoiding wildlife interactions, vaccinating pets, and reporting bites/exposures will be key to preventing secondary rabies infections stemming from this incident. Officials may consider localized wildlife immunization operations if further cases are linked back to the Peekskill fox specifically.
While rabies cases crop up occasionally, modern medicine allows for effective treatment if caught early. Still, officials are warning people to remain cautious outdoors, especially as weather warms. Rabies is extremely dangerous once symptoms manifest and any potential exposures should be treated as medical emergencies.
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