Thursday May 24, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- They don’t make rabies shots like they used to.

The now-obsolete series of 17 painful injections into the stomach muscles that constituted the standard regimen in the mid-20th century wouldn’t induce many people to wax nostalgic. But because the disease is rare in humans and the number of people vaccinated low, local hospital officials say common knowledge has not yet caught up to the fact that by 1980, the vaccine administration became much less severe.

Several rabid fox attacks in Pittsfield this month sent two city residents to the emergency room for vaccination. Nowadays, treatment for a person with suspected rabies exposure comprises two initial shots and three to follow-up -- no stomachs involved.

"There is a very large misconception out there that the vaccine is still done the old way," said Michael Leary, Berkshire Medical Center spokesman.

The first injection, an immunoglobulin to start fighting the virus, is administered at the site of the bite, according to Dr. Ronald Hayden, medical director of BMC’s emergency department.

The same day, a patient receives the first shot of vaccine in the upper arm or, in a child, the upper side leg. Patients then have to return to the ER thrice more over two weeks for additional vaccine injections, which Hayden said are no more uncomfortable than a typical immunization.

The vaccine does not provide lifelong protection, he added.

Rabid animal bites from foxes, skunks and raccoons are rarely seen at the Pittsfield hospital, but Hayden said that three to six people every month receive vaccination for suspected exposure to a rabid bat -- typically a person who woke up with one in their room and did not know if they’d been bitten or come in contact with its secretions.

Doctors take that extra precaution because once rabies symptoms develop, the mortality rate is nearly 100 percent.

"There is no cure, no antibiotic, no reversing agent," Hayden said.

To reach Amanda Korman:
akorman@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6243.
On Twitter: @mandface