Rabies vaccine for humans bitten or scratched by animals is in limited supply, so extra caution around wildlife or unknown pets is being urged by the state Department of Health's Hernando office.
"Hernando County has remained under a rabies alert status for a number of years because we continue to have at least one positive case a year," according to environmental health director Al Gray.
Only two manufacturers concoct the vaccine, said Health Department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis: one in the United States and one in France. The French company began renovating its facility in June and won't be operational again until late 2009, she said.
"They had stocked a supply based on history, (but) the need is outpacing the supply," Ellis said. "The need is more than the historical demand."
To receive the vaccine, the manufacturers are requiring that health care professionals make sure they have checked out the case.
As of early September, 357 animal bites or scratches had been reported in 2008 to the county Health Department.
"We average about 500 reports a year," Ellis said. "It doesn't mean they have been recommended for rabies vaccine."
In fact, only 11 animals have been sent to a state lab for rabies analysis, and just one of those, a cat, tested positive. The cat had no known owner but was a wanderer being fed and taken care of by a community of neighbors.
"This drives home the importance that you don't feed them, pet them, until you know their owner," Ellis said.
Cats aren't even a high rabies risk.
"Mostly the animals are raccoons, bats, foxes and skunks," she said. Rarely found to be infected in Florida are rabbits, squirrels, hamsters, gerbils, rats and other rodents.
"Individuals who are exposed to potentially rabid animals should immediately wash any wounds or contact sites with soap and water and seek medical attention from a health care professional," the Health Department stated in a news release. "Post-exposure vaccination is an urgent medical issue but not an emergency. It can be delayed until animal rabies testing or clinical observation is completed but only if medical care is sought soon after exposure."
It's widely known that rabid animals may act aggressively, attacking for no apparent reason.
"They may drool a lot due to difficulty swallowing. They also may stagger or become paralyzed." But they also may act very tame, Ellis added.
Anyone who sees an animal acting peculiarly should call Hernando County Animal Services at (352) 540-6812, Ellis said.
"Animal Services is instrumental in finding the animal," she said. "That's really important when it's decided whether to start a post-exposure process."
Beth Gray can be reached at email@example.com.