Rabies has been diagnosed in a 6-week-old Jersey calf at a Maryland educational centre, raising concerns about exposure of farm visitors, particularly groups of school children. At least 70 kids and an unstated number other visitors had recently visited the farm.

Fortunately, the farm in question is not open to the public, so they should have an easier time identifying people who have been there (e.g. school groups). Contact tracing is underway to try to identify people that had contact with the calf. Simply petting the calf or being in the general area does not pose a risk. The main risk would be from contact of open wounds with the calf’s saliva, or a bite. We don’t typically associate bites and calves, but it can happen when calves are allowed to suck on someone’s fingers – if the person sticks their hand in too far he/she may get chomped by the calf’s sharp molars. Public health personnel are trying to identify people who had contact with the calf, then they’ll determine whether there was a chance of exposure to the virus. People that were potentially exposed to rabies will undergo post-exposure prophylaxis, consisting of a shot of anti-rabies antibodies and four doses of vaccine over the course of a month. Not fun, but much better than getting this almost invariably fatal disease. At least nine students have started treatment so far.

Petting zoos and similar events are a concern in terms of disease transmission because of the large number of people that can be exposed to animals and the high percentage of children that are involved. Rabies is uncommon in petting zoo animals, but it is periodically identified at such a facility/event, often resulting in the need for post-exposure treatment of large numbers of people. Vaccination of petting zoo animals against rabies should be a standard practice. This calf, being only six weeks old, was too young to vaccinate, but if the calf’s mother was vaccinated the risk of rabies would be lower (because the calf would get antibodies from the mother). There’s no information about the cow’s vaccination status or much else about the calf, apart from it being a recent acquisition.

The fact that a recently acquired young calf was allowed to have contact with the public is questionable management, because young calves are a high risk group for certain infectious agents like Cryptosporidium and Salmonella. The CDC recommends that children less than five years of age not have contact with young calves.  Since young kids are frequent visitors of places like this, having calves (or at least letting people have direct contact with them) is quite questionable as well. Hopefully there will be a good review of vaccination, animal acquisition and animal contact protocols for this facility to reduce the risk of future exposures to rabies or other infectious diseases.