There's a rabies problem among skunks in Central Kentucky.
As of last week, there were 25 confirmed rabies cases this year in Kentucky; nine of them were in Fayette County, and those cases included six skunks, a bat, a fox and a horse.
"We have seen more this year, definitely, than we have in the past several years," said Luke Mathis, environmental team leader for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.
Dr. John Poe, state public health veterinarian, said rabies is "very endemic" among skunks in Central Kentucky, and the problem has been around for at least 25 years.
Last year, there were 45 rabies cases statewide, and four of them — three bats and a skunk — were in Fayette. Seven skunks, a bat and a dog tested positive in Woodford County last year. And five rabid skunks were found in Jessamine County.
Poe said Central Kentucky sits on a plateau, bounded to the south by the Kentucky River, which has somewhat isolated the skunk population here from the rest of the state.
Urban sprawl also has contributed to the issue.
"As the population of Fayette County has expanded and spread out, it's kind of compressed the skunk population," he said.
Several of the skunks, as well as the horse, with rabies this year were found in the northwestern part of the county, near Spurr Road and Yarnallton Pike.
"They just get these few little pockets of disease," Poe said. "It's kind of like your kids going to school" and passing around a virus.
Rabies is typically spread through saliva when one animal bites another. Poe said officials would like to immunize the skunks, but "we don't have a good way of doing it."
But Poe, who became public health veterinarian in January, has an idea for a skunk immunization campaign that he'd call "Healthy Skunks 2015." Because of logistical issues, he's unsure whether it will become a reality.
"We're studying on it," he said.
Poe's idea would be to trap wild skunks in cages on Central Kentucky farms, then send out a team of volunteer veterinarians to give them rabies vaccines and release them back into the wild.
"The risk is being sprayed and peed on," Poe said.
Ideally, he said, he would like to start the project next year with a goal of cutting the number of rabies cases in half by 2015 and ending rabies among land mammals in Kentucky by 2020.
Poe said similar efforts have been successful in other places, including Tucson, Ariz.
Though human cases of rabies are extremely rare, the disease places a monetary burden on the health care system.
Any time someone is bitten by an animal, and it seems possible that the animal had rabies, the person must undergo a course of treatment that can cost between $2,700 and $4,000.
For example, on Monday, a southern Kentucky woman was bitten by a bat while trying to get the animal off her dog, Poe said. The bat flew away, so it could not be tested for rabies.
Now, he said, the woman will have to undergo what's known as post-exposure prophylaxis to ensure that she does not contract rabies. The treatment consists of five rabies immunizations over a four-week period and a course of rabies immune globulin, which provides protection from the disease until the immunizations take effect.
A man received the treatments in January after being bitten while trying to dispose of a skunk he found in a pasture near Spurr Road in Lexington.
Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 40,000 people get the prophylaxis each year.
That's why Poe said it's so important for pet owners to have their animals vaccinated annually.
Bites by wild animals are relatively rare, but bites by pets aren't so uncommon.
Having pets vaccinated puts "a protective border" between people and the wild animals that carry the disease, which can prevent people bitten by pets from having to worry about rabies exposure.
In cases of dog bites, Poe said, unvaccinated dogs are usually quarantined for 10 days to be sure they don't show signs of the disease. But if the dog can't be found and it is unknown whether the animal had been vaccinated for rabies, Poe said the bite victim might receive the prophylaxis.
Kentucky law requires that dogs, cats and ferrets be vaccinated for rabies each year, but public health officials also encourage horse and cattle owners to have them vaccinated as well.
Poe said his office has sent letters to the organizers of the World Equestrian Games, notifying them of the rabies concern in Central Kentucky and urging them to suggest that horse owners who are bringing animals into the area for the event have them vaccinated beforehand.
Poe and Mathis said Lexington residents are particularly attentive to wild animals that might need to be tested for rabies.
Sometimes, Poe said, local citizens pick up dead skunks or other animals and submit them to the health department to have them tested for rabies.
And after a rabid animal is found, Mathis said, the health department posts signs in the area warning residents, which also helps increase awareness.
Mathis said anyone who is scratched or bitten by a wild animal should contact their doctor and have the animal tested for rabies.
But to keep that from happening, Mathis had some simple advice: "Stay away from wildlife."