Florida: Animals in Disney's Epcot May Have Rabies, Health Authorities Warn After Finding Feral Rabid Cat

Health officials in Florida have issued a rabies alert for a zone encompassing Walt Disney World's Epcot theme park, after a feral cat tested positive for the potentially deadly virus.

The Florida Department of Health in Orange County announced an alert on Tuesday, spanning a two-mile radius around the intersection of Interstate 4 and Epcot Center Drive in southwest Orange County. The alert will last for 60 days, the department said in a statement.

The warning comes after a feral cat in the area tested positive for the virus. Officials fear the animal may have been in contact with, and infected, other animals.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County told Newsweek two Disney cast members were scratched by a lab-confirmed rabid cat. The individuals sought medical treatment and did not contract rabies.

Members of the public should avoid touching feral cats and stray dogs, as well as wildlife including raccoons, foxes, bats, skunks, otters, bobcats and coyotes, officials said in the statement. Anyone bitten or scratched by a cat or wildlife in the rabies alert zone should seek medical attention and contact Orange County Animal Services on (407) 254-9150.

"Residents and visitors in this area of southwest Orange County should be aware that rabies is present in the wild animal population, and domestic animals are at risk if not vaccinated," the department said. "The public is asked to maintain a heightened awareness that rabies is active in this area of southwest Orange County."

Officials stressed the alert should "not give a false sense of security to areas that have not been named."

To prevent the spread of the virus, pet owners should ensure their animals have up-to-date rabies shots and not leave any pet food outside. Residents should make sure garbage left outdoors is covered and secured to avoid attracting wild animals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 5,000 animals test positive for rabies each year in the U.S., and one person every ten minutes is treated for possible exposure to the virus.

Rabies is spread when direct contact is made—via broken skin or the eyes, nose or mouth—with the saliva, or brain and nervous system tissue of an infected individual. Most often, people get rabies when they are bitten by a rabid animal, but it can be passed on in scratches, abrasions, or open wounds.

If left untreated, it can take weeks or months for symptoms to show as the virus must travel to the brain. The initial symptoms—like fever, weakness, and a headache for several days—can be mistaken for the flu. During a period lasting between two to 12 days, a person may develop an itching or prickling feeling near the area of infection, and become anxious, confused, agitated, delirious, and afraid of water. They might also experience hallucinations and struggle to sleep. By this point, it is unlikely a person will survive, according to the CDC.

Dr. Katie Hampson, reader at the Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, explained to the Science Media Centre last year why rabies is so deadly.

"The virus infects the nervous system and before reaching the brain replicates slowly in a way that does not trigger the immune system," she said.

"When the virus reaches the brain it replicates rapidly, and that's when symptoms become evident. At that point, it is too late and death is inevitable. Death involves muscle spasms, brain inflammation, and coma, although victims go in and out of lucidity, which makes it even more traumatic."

This article has been updated with comment a Florida Department of Health in Orange County spokesperson.

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Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse participate in the 43rd Annual Three Kings Day Parade on January 20, 2013 in Miami, Florida. Officials have issued a rabies alert covering Walt Disney World’s Epcot. Alexander Tamargo