KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Raccoons will probably cause a drastic increase in rabies cases in Tennessee in the near future, a University of Tennessee veterinarian said Monday.
Dr. John New said health authorities in Mid-Atlantic states are getting up to ten times as many rabies reports since the disease began spreading in that region’s raccoon population about 15 years ago.
Illegal transport of raccoons for hunting, a natural rise in their population and other factors triggered a “rabies epidemic” in the Mid-Atlantic states, New said. The same thing could happen here as rabid raccoons move into East Tennessee through mountain corridors from Virginia and North Carolina, he said.
“The stage is set for Tennessee to see a substantial increase in raccoon related rabies cases,” New said. This is important because rabid raccoons have a tendency to expose more people to rabies than do other wild animals such as skunks.”
New said people usually avoid skunks, which are Tennessee’s primary source of rabies.
However, humans have less fear of raccoons and sometimes even keep them as pets, he said. Raccoons are more aggressive than skunks, more likely to be attacked by dogs and better suited to thrive in suburban areas, he said.
Dr. Gary Swinger, director of infectious diseases for the state Health Department, said rabies cases in North Carolina have risen from only 24 in 1991 to 535 so far this year, with 427 of those related to raccoons. He attributes the increase to raccoons becoming more prevalent as carriers.
Tennessee has reported 114 rabies cases this year, with 107 cases from skunks but so far no raccoon related cases.
Once the virus is established in Tennessee’s raccoon population, the state is likely to see a rise in rabies incidence similar to that in the Mid-Atlantic states, he said.
“Rabies in skunks is not as likely to be spread to humans and other animals as the raccoon strain,” New said. “This strain is rapidly approaching Tennessee, and may have entered the state already”
Contact: Dr. John New (423-974-5576)