2008 was a record-breaking year for Hall County, but nobody is celebrating.
The county had 43 confirmed cases of rabies last year, by far the most ever reported in Hall. In a typical year, the county records fewer than a dozen.
Hall’s total also was the most in the state. None of the 158 other counties in Georgia reported more in 2008.
According to the Georgia Department of Human Resources, 2,598 animals were tested for rabies last year and 386 tested positive. That means 11 percent of Georgia’s confirmed cases came from a single county: Hall.
Experts have no idea why the number skyrocketed last year. "We’ve beat our heads against the wall trying to figure it out," said Mike Ledford, director of Hall County Animal Control.
The most common theory has been population growth. As more people move into the county and more homes are built, wild animals may be displaced from their habitat and come into contact with humans more often.
But residential construction in Hall came to a virtual standstill last year because of the economic downturn. Also, some counties in Northeast Georgia are growing faster than Hall, yet haven’t experienced an explosion in rabies cases. Gwinnett County, with a population four times larger than Hall’s, had 20 cases last year.
John Fischer, director of the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia, said the rabies virus is common among wild animals. But he can think of three reasons why it might become more prevalent.
"Increased host population. Increased host susceptibility. Increased virulence," he said. "I can’t say which possibility is more likely than the others."
Increased host population would mean that Hall had more wild animals in 2008. Increased susceptibility means the animals were more vulnerable to contracting rabies. Increased virulence means there’s a strain of rabies virus here that’s more aggressive or contagious than normal.
The latter theory might be the most plausible. In some of the cases last year, more than one rabid animal was found on the same street.
"Usually it’s a den of them. One contracts (the virus) and passes it on to the others," said Ledford.
Of the 43 cases last year, 34 occurred in the northern half of Hall County. The infected animals included 22 raccoons, 18 skunks and three foxes.
In the majority of cases, Animal Control was called after a rabid wild animal got into a fight with a pet dog or cat. But there were a few cases where authorities were called because an animal was "acting abnormally."
The rabies virus attacks the brain, causing bizarre neurological symptoms in the final stage of the disease.
"These animals are staggering, walking in circles, bumping into things, drooling, and not trying to avoid humans as they normally would," said Ledford.
Just prior to the terminal stage is the most dreaded phase, aggression. The animal will repeatedly attack anything that moves, and it can be extremely tenacious.
There were two cases last year, both in South Hall, in which rabid animals attacked and bit people who were in their yards or driveways.
Ledford said both victims were given a series of preventive shots so they wouldn’t develop rabies, and they’re doing fine now.
North Hall resident Gilbert Adams won’t soon forget his encounter with a rabid animal. Last March, he found a skunk wandering his property on Price Road.
"It was staggering around, so I knew something wasn’t right," he said. "It was trying to get into my dog’s pen."
Adams tried to scare the skunk away, but it was undeterred. Not wanting to leave himself open to attack, he got in his truck and chased the skunk down to a pasture, where he shot it with a rifle.
"I called Animal Control and they came out and got it pretty quick, and later it tested positive for rabies," Adams said.
Luckily, his small dog had been inside a chain-link enclosure and did not make contact with the skunk. But Adams realized that he needed to protect his pet.
The next time the Humane Society of Hall County held a rabies vaccination clinic, he said, "I took (the dog) and got him a shot."
Many other Hall residents had the same idea. The humane society offered nine rabies clinics last year and drew large crowds, vaccinating a total of 3,546 dogs and cats.
"We’re going to try to increase our rabies clinics this year, and do more education," humane society president Rick Aiken said.
He hopes people will remember that rabies vaccinations need to be renewed annually. "Everyone who came for shots last year will receive a card listing all of our clinics for this year," Aiken said.
If an unvaccinated pet is bitten by a rabid animal, it must be either euthanized or placed in a strict six-month quarantine at the owner’s expense.
Ledford said he did not have statistics on how many pets ended up being euthanized due to rabies exposure last year.
"A trend I did see was that toward the end of the year, more and more pets (in these rabies incidents) were vaccinated," he said.
But being vaccinated against rabies doesn’t give the animal a license to roam free.
"Keep your pets contained," said Ledford. "If your dog is running loose in the woods, we won’t know if there’s been contact (with a rabid animal) or not. We won’t have an animal to ship."
"Shipping" is what happens to a suspected rabid creature after it is killed. Animal Control officers remove its head and send it down to the Georgia Public Health Lab’s Virology Section in Decatur. The virus lives in the brain, so there’s no need to ship the entire animal.
Some have suggested that Hall had more confirmed rabies cases this year simply because more animals are being tested. But Ledford said he doesn’t order the test unless there’s strong reason to believe the animal is rabid.
"We shipped a total of 108 heads in 2008, and 43 of them came back positive," he said. "That’s a high ratio."
Ledford said the state of Georgia pays for the test, so the lab fees have not been a drain on the county’s budget.
But Animal Control did have to devote a lot of manpower to handling rabies cases last year. Each time the disease was confirmed, officers went door to door in the neighborhood, warning people to have their pets vaccinated and to observe wildlife for signs of rabies.
After 2009’s first, and so far only, case of rabies occurred on Jan. 20, Animal Control tried a different tactic. Warning signs were posted at intersections in the affected neighborhood.
"We’ve found that the signs are much more effective at getting people’s attention than doing the door-to-door canvassing," Ledford said.
Will 2009 be another record-breaking year for rabies cases? Officials probably won’t be able to assess the situation until spring, when animals become more active.
Last year, there were two cases in January, none in February and at least a dozen in March. The pace seemed to slow in July, when there was only one case. But in August, there were seven.
The prospect of another year like 2008 makes North Hall residents uneasy.
"It’s bad," said Adams. "I’ve spent a lot of my life in the woods, and I’d never come across an animal with rabies before."
Adams believes he can protect himself, but he worries about children and pets.
"We’ve got two grandkids that play in the yard a lot," he said. "What scares me is that we have a lot of coyotes up here. If they ever get rabies, we’re in trouble, because they’re aggressive even if they don’t have rabies."
Ledford said residents should be vigilant, but not immobilized by fear.
"There’s no reason for panic," he said. "You should still let your kids play outside. But they should be taught not to approach wild animals."