Three people who cared for an injured raccoon in Okatie are undergoing medical treatment after the animal tested positive for rabies, state health officials said Thursday.
Five others are being evaluated to see if they need the preventive inoculation against the virus, which is fatal to humans and animals once it reaches the brain.
The raccoon was found struggling to walk along a road in Okatie when a resident decided to take it home to nurse it, unaware that it was rabid, according to Adam Myrick, public information director for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. When the animal's condition worsened, it was taken to a veterinarian where it tested positive for rabies.
Now, two women and a child who handled the raccoon are being treated by a doctor. The animal did not bite them, but the virus can spread through scratches or saliva, Myrick said. DHEC is still determining how much contact five other people may have had with the raccoon.
"We cannot stress enough the importance of resisting the urge to adopt or feed wildlife," Sue Ferguson of DHEC said in a news release. "Despite the prevalent folklore, there is no way to tell from looking at an animal whether or not it has rabies, and baby animals can carry the disease without showing the symptoms, as well."
The incident is the fifth confirmed rabid animal in Beaufort County this year. Last year's total was five rabid animals, with 106 confirmed cases in the state.
Memorable encounters of rabid raccoons in the county include an incident in 2010 when a Hilton Head Island man was bitten after trying to break up a fight between a raccoon and a dog.
In 2008 on Hilton Head, more than 35 people and 20 pets were exposed to a 3-week-old rabid raccoon after a family took it in. They fed the animal by putting their fingers in its mouth. People also held it, kissed it and passed it around to friends and relatives in Beaufort County and Georgia.
Residents should avoid wild animals acting tame and tame animals acting wild, DHEC says.
Those who think they might have been exposed to rabies through a bite, scratch or saliva from an animal should wash the area with soap and water, get medical attention and report the incident to DHEC's Beaufort County Environmental Health Office at 843-525-7627.
Myrick said the last human death caused by rabies in the state was in the 1950s, and DHEC would like to "keep that streak going" by raising awareness of the dangers of handling, feeding or adopting wild animals.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.
Related content: Rabies warning issued after man bitten by raccoon, June 27, 2010