Topeka — Officials won't call it an outbreak, but the number of rabies cases reported in Kansas so far this year is double the number reported during the same time last year.
Heightened public awareness about rabies could spur an increase in positive diagnoses as more animals are sent in for testing, said Rolan Davis, technical supervisor at the Kansas State University department of diagnostic medicine/pathobiology, which tests for rabies in animals referred by veterinarians and public health departments throughout the state.
"If we start yelling, 'rabies outbreak' it is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Davis said.
The disease seems to follow seven- to 10-year cycles, he said. During each of the past few years, there have been about 100 reported cases of rabies in Kansas, including about 10 horses and cows. The last bad outbreak was in 1992, when 365 cases were reported.
"We're probably in store for an outbreak year," Davis said.
Already this year, 63 animals in 29 Kansas counties have tested positive for rabies.
A higher population of skunks a common carrier of the disease could account for the higher rate of reported rabies infections, Davis said. Also, skunks could be moving in search of water near people and domesticated animals.
"It may be not just that skunk numbers are high, but rather that they're coming together to try to find a common water source," Davis said.
He pointed to two pockets of counties that have reported high numbers of rabies infections this year southwest Kansas, including Gray and Ford counties, and north-central Kansas, including Pottawatomie, Clay, Riley and Washington counties. The disease isn't limited to those areas.
"Rabies is probably found in every county in Kansas," he said. "As long as there are striped skunks, rabies probably exists there."
While the disease has been reported in domestic animals, including dogs, cats, horses and cattle, there hasn't been a case of rabies in a human in Kansas since 1968.