Can’t touch this: stay away from stray, wild animals

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joshua Magbanua
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Rabies is a virus nightmares are made of. It is also a real-world threat members of Incirlik Air Base face whenever they come across the many stray and wild mammals which roam the community.

Imagine being infected with a lethal virus which attacks your nervous system and destroys your brain.

First, you are bitten, scratched or licked by an infected creature which transmits the virus into your system. The virus then incubates within you, waiting for its moment to strike. After a period of time, you are down with a sickness. You think it’s just a fever, but it’s actually the virus beginning its hostile takeover of your body.

Before you know it, your cognitive functions disintegrate. You become violent, irrational and psychotic—you have literally lost your mind. Then the virus inflicts its death blow: you are struck by paralysis, descend into a coma and fade away into the depths of death.

This isn’t a Hollywood horror. This is a real disease which makes vampire novels look like children’s fairy tales in comparison. Rabies is a reality faced by those who ignore public health warnings and interact with infected mammals.

Thankfully, medical professionals at Incirlik are here to educate their community about the dangers of this fatal disease.

“The virus is endemic in many areas of Turkey, with dogs being the principal reservoir and vector, bringing humans into contact with the virus,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Heather Johnson, 39th Medical Group non-commissioned officer in charge of communicable disease. “The presence of the disease in dogs and—in some areas—wildlife, represents a continuing threat to public health.”

Johnson and her colleagues conduct medical briefings for U.S. military and civilian personnel upon their arrival to Incirlik. They warn their audience to stay away from stray and wild animals—no matter how cute and cuddly these animals may appear.

The most common stray animals found on the installation are cats and dogs. Wild mammals include rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs and bats.

U.S. Army Capt. Timothy Beck, chief of Incirlik Veterinary Services, discouraged members of the community from interacting with these animals because of the potential diseases they carry. He also clarified animals do not need to show symptoms of disease, rabies or otherwise, to be able to transmit viruses.

“A common misconception is that animals infected with rabies virus ‘look rabid,’” he said. “Animals infected with rabies virus can spread the virus to humans and other animals prior to showing clinical signs of illness. In addition to rabies, there are many other infectious diseases that can be spread from stray animals to humans. These diseases can be anything from severe wound infections to parasite infections.

Rabies virus has a 100 percent mortality rate if left untreated,” Beck continued. “This is why it is important to refrain from interacting with apparently healthy stray dogs and cats and seek immediate medical treatment if you have been scratched or bitten.”

Beck’s veterinary treatment facility works with the 39th Medical Group and 39th Civil Engineer Squadron to combat the proliferation of rabies and other animal-borne diseases at Incirlik.

39th CES personnel bring captured stray animals they believe are ill or injured to the VTF. While under the care of the VTF, Beck and his team monitor the animals for any signs of diseases which may impact the community.

According to the Center for Disease Control, rabies causes approximately 59,000 deaths around the world each year. The fatality rate is extremely high, with only less than 20 human cases of survival.

The CDC published a report in 2011 describing the case of an Army Soldier who displayed symptoms of rabies while transiting to a new duty assignment. The Soldier was hospitalized, and died in August of that year after being removed from life support. An investigation revealed the Soldier was bitten by a feral dog while on deployment, with no records of treatment being found.

Johnson described the effects of rabies, adding it can take a few days to several months before symptoms appear.

“It is 100 percent fatal,” she said. “The illness is characterized by fever and pain or a tingling sensation at the wound site. As a result of inflammation to the brain and spinal cord, some patients present with anxiety, hyperactivity, convulsion and delirium. In other patients, muscles become paralyzed followed by a coma. Once symptoms are present, most patients die within one or two weeks.

Johnson listed procedures to take if a person suspects he or she has been exposed to rabies. These actions must be taken immediately after contact with the animal, she added.

“Try to take note of the type of animal, its color and size,” she said. “Immediately wash animal bite or scratches with soap and water. Please visit the clinic as soon as possible to be seen by a provider to determine need for post exposure prophylaxis and be diligent with subsequent follow-up vaccinations.

“Do not feed the animals,” Johnson continued. “Although you may not be petting them, they will continue to return because they have found a food source, which only increases the risk of a possible exposure.”

Although rabies is one of the most lethal diseases, it is also one of the most preventable as well. The first step people can take to protect themselves from this nightmare disease is simple: just stay away from the filthy animals.