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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 December 2006, 02:08 GMT
New Yorkers given rabies warning
By Matt Wells
BBC News, New York

A racoon
Staten Island has many racoons, a species susceptible to rabies
Health officials in New York are warning residents to stay away from stray animals over the holiday period.

The advice follows a large increase in the reported number of rabies cases, including seven in December alone.

The outbreak is centred on the borough of Staten Island, which lies off Manhattan, where 35 animals have tested positive for the virus during 2006.

Rabies is highly infectious and usually passed on by a bite. In humans, it is almost always fatal if left untreated.

The borough of Staten Island - which sits just off the southern shore of Manhattan - has a large population of racoons and other wild animals which are susceptible to the virus.

But alarm bells really began to ring when a man was bitten in November by a rabid kitten which he had tried to rescue from the streets.

He was successfully treated - in fact, it has been more than 50 years since any New Yorker contracted rabies.

However, the spike in animal cases found during December has prompted the city health commissioner to issue a stark warning for people to stay away from strays, and to take their own pets to be vaccinated.

The authorities hope that by footing the bill for the vaccination programme over the next six months, they will prevent the disease from spreading to other boroughs.

There were no reports of rabies cases on Staten Island during 2005.

One local politician has called for an emergency task force to be set up to try to track down the source of the current outbreak.

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