Salon writer Irin Carmon was bitten by a strange dog in Brooklyn this weekend, and though the wound itself wasn’t too bad the call is out for people who might know the dog:
Hours later, I found a small actual wound and went to the ER, where they told me I have ten days to either find the dog to find out if it’s up to date on its shots, or get a miserable suite of shots. Or die of rabies.
So if you have any recollection of this dog in the Park Slope area, especially paired with the characteristics above, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you know me, contact me on whatever platform you want.
Irin has a lot of friends online, so the message is spreading quickly among the Park Slope dog set, and I wish her luck finding the dog.
But some of the messages going out to try to help her might end up reinforcing an inadvertent anti-vaccination message, to wit: the notion that rabies shots are an experience that you really, really want to avoid, because they involve two dozen painful injections in the abdomen with very long needles.
And who wouldn’t bend over backwards to avoid that kind of experience? Possibly even to the point of not seeking medical advice after a potentially dangerous bite?
But the urban-legend-style description of rabies vaccinations just isn’t true. Hasn’t been for a generation.
In 2004 my ex-wife took it upon herself to capture, tame and adopt out a gigantic crop of feral kittens in my old neighborhood in the SF Bay Area. One of them we caught almost too late to tame.
I foolishly picked the kitten up with my bare hands, and after about 45 seconds of me not listening to it as it told me to put it down immediately, it escalated to a physical demonstration of its displeasure. Dissolve to me standing over the sink, losing copious amounts of blood from my right hand.
We had the choice of quarantining the kitten for a couple of weeks at animal control, destroying almost any chance that we could tame it during its last couple weeks of kittenhood, or me going in for rabies vaccinations. I picked that second option, and so over the next week and a half I got a pair of 11-milliliter rabies immunoglobulin injections in the ass, and five rabies vaccine shots in the upper arm. And a tetanus booster.
Some people do react to the vacccine, but for me the tetanus booster was more unpleasant by an order of magnitude, and that was less painful than the bite. The rabies vaccinations themselves, if given by someone good with a syringe, are nothing to fear. The worst part of the whole thing was driving to the hospital. And the kitten got adopted by someone who wanted a challenge.
The risk of dogs being carriers of rabies is a lot lower than it used to be in the United States, due to a decades-long interagency government vaccination campaign targeted at all dogs in the country. Some authorities use the phrase “eradicated,” which is probably slightly optimistic. But wild animals are still reservoirs; a sick animal doesn’t need to bite you to inoculate you with the disease, and the rabies virus can multiply quietly in your body for decades while you remain asymptomatic. And if you are infected, the math is pretty simple:
- 100 percent of people infected with rabies who become symptomatic will die of the disease, assuming they don’t get hit by a truck first;
- 100 percent of people exposed to rabies who are properly vaccinated before they become symptomatic will survive exposure.
It’s hard to argue against getting the vaccine, in other words.
[notice][Update and clarification: I said here that 100% of humans who develop rabies without vaccine treatment die of the disease, and 100% of those vaccinated in time do not. A reader has noted that six people who developed rabies symptoms have survived as a result of a still-experimental protocol involving induced coma and anti-viral drugs whose first successful use was in 2004. Worldwide, about 70,000 people died of rabies in 2011, and as the new treatment has rescued an average of .75 people per year since 2004, the global mortality figure for those who develop rabies symptoms worldwide should actually be on the order of 99.999989%. I regret the sloppiness.][/notice]
Of course, since the health care distribution system in the United States is almost irremediably fucked, it turns out that the rabies immunoglobulin injections can be ridiculously costly if you don’t have good insurance. Not quite rattlesnake antivenin expensive, but high enough, in the four figure range, to ensure that if we did have a lot of rabid dogs in the US the poor would die of rabies and the affluent would be only mildly inconvenienced. (Another reason I’m lastingly grateful for my ex’s teachers’ union and its sane, humane health plan with the $5 and $10 co-pays.)
But that disincentive only means that it’s even more important not to add more disincentives to vaccination, especially those that border on urban legend. The shots were invasive and painful from the 1960s through the 1980s. Since then, not so much. The prospect of needing rabies shots is daunting enough without untruths about scary pain being spread around on Facebook and Twitter. Anti-vax myths can take a lot of different forms, mutating into strains spread by pro-vax people. Let’s not keep spreading this one.
And let’s hope Irin Carmon finds the people who own the dog that bit her, so they can cover her medical expenses.