Edgar Allen Poe—Died of Rabies?

When Poe, known for his ghoulish tales, was found unconscious on the steps of the Baltimore Museum in September of 1849, he was hospitalized with tremors, hallucinations, difficulty drinking, and delirium. He died shortly afterwards. Poe's symptoms may have also included anxiety, insomnia, and salivation. Many now believe that he had contracted rabies, probably from a bite or scratches from an infected cat, as cats were favorites of his. Do you put yourself in similar danger today?

Rabies is a viral disease spread by saliva and neural fluids of infected mammals, causing deadly inflammation of the brain. Rarely, it is air-borne in laboratories or bat caves and a handful of cases have resulted from tissue transplants. In humans, rabies incubates for 20 to 60 days while following nerve pathways toward the brain. Only during the early phase of this migration, are preventative vaccines effective. Once neurological symptoms appear, generally death soon follows, regardless of any treatments. Historically, rabies has been a footnote since a little before 1320 BC. In the exploration of the Americas, Spanish soldiers who died after being bitten on their toes while sleeping, were probably victims of rabid vampire bats.

Though rabies is still a prevalent disease in many other countries, routine pet vaccinations have markedly decreased but not erased this ugly killer in the United States. Preventative vaccinations in humans help to protect those who are unusually at risk by travel or significant exposure to animals. Rabies vaccinations in our pets are virtually 100% effective. Since rabies inoculations are mandated by law in dogs over 6 months of age, now cats whose vaccinations are often unregulated, have surpassed the canines in numbers of cases. Wisconsin law does not call for rabies vaccinations of cats, but the City of Ashland has stepped forward with its own regulation, requiring registration of cats which requires their vaccinations for rabies. Municipalities should publicly present available video coverage of the grotesque time-lapsed death of a human rabies victim. Then, cats and probably more horses would soon get the simple protection they need. It is sad that we require legislation to ordain what should be common sense.

Our main sources of rabies infection are now in wildlife—usually bats, skunks, raccoons, and wild canines. Small rodents and rabbits do not seem to be capable of transmission to other species but beavers, woodchucks, and groundhogs are. From 1990 to 2000, bats are blamed for 24 of the 32 reported cases of human rabies. Their bites are small and may go undetected. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) suggests that people should seek medical attention even if they only find a bat in the room when they awaken or in the room of an unattended child, disabled person, or intoxicated person. Be especially suspicious of bats that are active during the day, found in an abnormal place, or cannot seem to fly. Catch the bat for testing if at all possible. Instructions on the CDC website say to wear leather gloves, put a container over the bat, slide a cardboard under the opening, tape shut, and deliver to your local veterinarian or health department. Testing may save the trauma and considerable expense of rabies post exposure preventative treatment. Bats' voracious appetites for insects are extremely important to the ecosystem in many ways and so their eradication is not a valid answer to the problem.

Rabies is an issue in Wisconsin and here in Ashland! A bat bite caused rabies in the 15 year old girl who made news in Fond du Lac County in 2004 for being the first to survive rabies once the neurological symptoms appeared. Our clinic's last positive rabies case was a bat indoors, in a jacket sleeve, biting the unfortunate (and surprised) owner of the jacket. Protect yourself best by vaccinating your pets! This may also prevent euthanizing your pet or paying for fines and exams and an expensive isolation in the fairly common dog or cat bite incident. Even the cat that never leaves the house is susceptible to the rabid bat that gets in.

If you think that an exposure may have occurred from pets or wildlife, wash the wound immediately and call your doctor. Let the medical profession wade through the complicated protocols that decide what course of treatment, if any, should be followed. If you are curious and would like to learn more, there is a website that is fairly easy to understand. Check out the Wisconsin Rabies Prevention Flowchart. Shall we say Poe's "Nevermore" to the rabies that knocketh at our door?