U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


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U.S. government work


Background: Rabies is a deadly zoonotic disease with nearly 100% fatality rate. In the United States, rabies virus persists in wildlife reservoirs, with occasional spillover into humans and domestic animals. The distribution of reservoir hosts in US counties plays an important role in public health decision-making, including the recommendation of lifesaving postexposure prophylaxis upon suspected rabies exposures. Furthermore, in surveillance data, it is difficult to discern whether counties have no cases reported because rabies was not present or because counties have an unreported rabies presence. These epizootics are monitored by the National Rabies Surveillance System (NRSS), to which approximately 130 state public health, agriculture, and academic laboratories report animal rabies testing statistics. Historically, the NRSS classifies US counties as free from terrestrial rabies if, over the previous 5 years, they and any adjacent counties did not report any rabies cases and they tested ≥15 reservoir animals or 30 domestic animals.

Objective: This study aimed to describe and evaluate the historical NRSS rabies-free county definition, review possibilities for improving this definition, and develop a model to achieve more precise estimates of the probability of terrestrial rabies freedom and the number of reported county-level terrestrial rabies cases.

Methods: Data submitted to the NRSS by state and territorial public health departments and the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services were analyzed to evaluate the historical rabies-free definition. A zero-inflated negative binomial model created county-level predictions of the probability of rabies freedom and the expected number of rabies cases reported. Data analyzed were from all animals submitted for laboratory diagnosis of rabies in the United States from 1995 to 2020 in skunk and raccoon reservoir territories, excluding bats and bat variants.

Results: We analyzed data from 14,642 and 30,120 county-years in the raccoon and skunk reservoir territories, respectively. Only 0.85% (9/1065) raccoon county-years and 0.79% (27/3411) skunk county-years that met the historical rabies-free criteria reported a case in the following year (99.2% negative predictive value for each), of which 2 were attributed to unreported bat variants. County-level model predictions displayed excellent discrimination for detecting zero cases and good estimates of reported cases in the following year. Counties classified as rabies free rarely (36/4476, 0.8%) detected cases in the following year.

Conclusions: This study concludes that the historical rabies freedom definition is a reasonable approach for identifying counties that are truly free from terrestrial raccoon and skunk rabies virus transmission. Gradations of risk can be measured using the rabies prediction model presented in this study. However, even counties with a high probability of rabies freedom should maintain rabies testing capacity, as there are numerous examples of translocations of rabies-infected animals that can cause major changes in the epidemiology of rabies.