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Putnam County rabies policy uniquely strict

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Former Putnam county sanitarian Barbara Koblinsky won an appeal of her second wrongful termination case against the Putnam County Board of Health in July after several of her former coworkers came forward to say former Putnam health department administrators had planned to have her fired a second time.

In Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom's decision, it was noted that in the first wrongful termination grievance, Koblinsky had been reprimanded for allegedly failing to enforce the health department rabies control policy, which she opposed.

The policy, which is still in place, requires that animals that have bitten a person must be quarantined for 10 days in the Putnam County animal shelter or an approved veterinary office at the owner's expense. The policy is more stringent than the state standard, which allows animals to be quarantined at home, and Putnam County is the only county in the state that requires quarantines outside the home.

Joe Haynes, Putnam county commission president and former health board member, said the policy is controversial because it is much more strict, but the health department felt it was necessary to ensure citizens' safety.

"The board's feeling was that, No. 1, we didn't have enough employees to police something like that and make sure it was being done, and No. 2, we didn't feel like it was a very responsible thing to do, to allow someone to quarantine their pet at home," he said. 

According to Miguella Mark-Carew, a zoonotic disease epidemiologist for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Public Health, the majority of rabies cases in animals the department documents are wild animals, primarily raccoons.

In 2012, 60 animals were determined positive for rabies through DHHR-administered tests; of those, 29 were raccoons. Only four domesticated animals -- two dogs and two cats -- were determined to have rabies.

"The number of domesticated animals remains pretty low consistently, but it's because of their interactions with wild animals that they're contracting rabies," Mark-Carew said.

The 10-day quarantine period is designed to monitor the animal for signs of the disease, although Mark-Carew said that isn't always conclusive. In order to conclusively test for rabies, the DHHR must test a portion of an animal's brain stem, which requires it be euthanized.

"If the animal were to become ill, it would be early after the exposure, so 10 days is what is recommended by different agencies," she said. "Depending on the outcome, the animal can be put to sleep or released back to its owner."

Only three animals, all bats, have tested positive for rabies in Putnam County since 2000. Mark-Carew said the policy may be more costly for pet owners, but it is likely to reduce the risk of exposing people to a rabid or aggressive animal.

"I think it depends on what the county wants to do. To have a sanitarian come and check on the animal to make sure it is quarantined may seem an inefficient process," Mark-Carew said. "The quarantine process varies some across counties, and if Putnam believes that's their best bet, it's not a bad method -- it is more stringent, and a little more costly for people, but it is a safe way to do it."

In 2010, Hurricane resident Terry Humphrey's 9-year-old cat "Kitty Tom" was accidentally killed while under quarantine at the shelter. Jon Davis, Putnam County's chief humane officer, said that owned animals with up-to-date rabies vaccinations are not in danger of euthanasia at the Putnam shelter.

"We wouldn't put anything down unless we had an order from the health department saying they wanted it put down," Davis said. "We're basically the middle man in that situation; the health department makes all of the decisions as far as that goes. All we do is hold the animals unless we are ordered otherwise."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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