Sixteen people who fed, kissed and held a baby raccoon on Hilton Head Island now are being treated by a physician after the animal tested positive for rabies.
Twenty of their pets are under quarantine for 45 days, said Clair Boatwright, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
There also are seven more people who might need vaccines to prevent them from contracting the disease, she said.
Though the raccoon was found on Hilton Head, Boatwright was not sure if all of those exposed are Beaufort County residents. DHEC would not release names.
"Someone adopted a baby raccoon and passed it around to everyone they knew and kissed it on the lips," Boatwright said. "There was a lot of affectionate handling, kissing it and feeding it. Part of that is it was three weeks old, and they inserted fingers into the raccoon's mouth. Saliva is one way that rabies spreads."
Boatwright said the baby raccoon did not show signs of the disease, but got sick Monday and had seizures. On Tuesday, a veterinarian euthanized the animal and sent it to DHEC, where it tested positive for rabies.
In most cases, Boatwright said, wild animals will not show signs of rabies, and people will not experience symptoms if they are exposed to the disease.
"Once you have a symptom, it has reached the brain and it is fatal," she said.
"If you are exposed to the disease," Boatwright continued, "it doesn't mean you have developed the disease. That's when we can prevent it."