A rabid fox that attacked and bit a 78-year-old woman in Lincoln County, N.M., on April 20 had a previously unseen strain of rabies, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) reported yesterday. The rabies laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta performed the genetic sequencing of the virus which infects the central nervous system. Rabies causes disease in the brain and, if untreated, quick death.

To prevent the virus from developing into rabies, the woman received a series of vaccinations. She had been walking near her home when a gray fox approached her and bit her on her leg as she tried to scare the animal. The gray fox, which is the first wild animal to test positive for rabies in New Mexico this year, was euthanized later by a warden from the Department of Game and Fish.

In 2014, New Mexico reported 12 cases of wildlife rabies: six bats in Bernalillo County, one bat in San Miguel County, four skunks in Eddy County, and a fox in Roosevelt County.

When animals are infected with rabies, they may appear sick, fearless, aggressive, or friendly toward humans. Animals acting this way are a threat and should be avoided, public officials stated.

Symptoms in Humans

Today, the principal hosts for rabies are wild carnivores and bats. In humans, the early symptoms of the disease include fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort. The symptoms, then, are similar to those of many illnesses. However, as rabies progresses, signature signs of the illness begin to appear: insomnia, anxiety, confusion, partial or slight paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva which may appear as “frothing at the mouth”), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia or fear of water. Once these symptoms have begun, death usually occurs within days.

Following initial tests, NMDOH contacted federal agencies to conduct further tests to determine the strain of the virus. Previously, from 2007 through 2010, a rabies epidemic occurred among gray foxes in New Mexico.

“This new strain is related to other rabies strains found in bats,” Dr. Retta Ward, NMDOH cabinet secretary, stated in a press release. Ward said the department would work with other agencies to increase surveillance as officials collect dead foxes and bats found on the ground in Lincoln County and testing them for rabies.

Though rabies is fatal in humans, illness and death can be prevented by immediate treatment. If you are scratched or bitten by any animal you suspect may have rabies — wildlife or pets — call the Department of Health or your doctor immediately.