Rabies — the word probably brings to mind an
enraged animal frothing at the mouth. An encounter with an infected animal can
result in a painful, life-threatening condition.
According to the World Health Organization, up to 59,000 people worldwide die from rabies every year. Ninety-nine
percent of them have been bitten by a rabid dog.
However, the availability of vaccines for both animals and humans has led to a
steep decline in rabies cases in the United States, where there are two to
three rabies deaths a year.
Rabies is caused by a virus that affects the
central nervous system, particularly causing inflammation in the brain.
Domestic dogs, cats, and rabbits, and wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons,
and bats, are able to transfer the virus to humans via bites and scratches. The
key to fighting the virus is a quick response.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Rabies
The period between the bite and the onset of
symptoms is called the incubation period. It usually takes four to 12 weeks for
a person to develop rabies symptoms once they’re infected. However, incubation
periods can also range from a few days to six years.
The initial onset of rabies begins with
flu-like symptoms, including:
- muscle weakness
You may also feel burning at the bite site.
As the virus continues to attack the central
nervous system, there are two different types of the disease that can develop.
Infected people who develop furious rabies will
be hyperactive and excitable and may display erratic behavior. Other symptoms
- excess salivation
- problems swallowing
- fear of water
This form of rabies takes longer to set in,
but the effects are just as severe. Infected people slowly become paralyzed,
will eventually slip into a coma, and die. According to the World
Health Organization, 30 percent of rabies cases are
How Do People Catch Rabies?
Animals with rabies transfer the virus to
other animals and to people via saliva following a bite or via a scratch.
However, any contact with the mucous membranes or an open wound can also spread
the virus. The transmission of this virus is considered to be exclusively from animal
to animal and animal to human. While human-to-human transmission of the virus
is extremely rare, there have been a handful of cases reported following
transplantation of corneas. For humans who contract rabies, a bite from an
unvaccinated dog is by far the most common culprit.
Once a person has been bitten, the virus
spreads through their nerves to the brain. It’s important to note that bites or
scratches on the head and neck are thought to speed up the brain and spinal
cord involvement because of the location of the initial trauma. If you’re
bitten on the neck, seek help as soon as possible.
Following a bite, the rabies virus spreads by
way of the nerve cells to the brain. Once in the brain, the virus multiplies
rapidly. This activity causes severe inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
after which the person deteriorates rapidly and dies.
Animals that Can Spread Rabies
Both wild and domesticated animals can spread
the rabies virus. The following animals are the main sources of rabies
infection in humans:
Who Is at Risk of Contracting Rabies?
For most people, the risk of contracting
rabies is relatively low. However, there are certain situations that may put
you at a higher risk. These include:
- living in an area that is
populated by bats
- traveling to developing countries
- living in a rural area where
there is greater exposure to wild animals and little or no access to vaccines
and immunoglobulin preventive therapy
- frequent camping and exposure to
- being under the age of 15 (rabies
is most common in this age group)
Although dogs are responsible for most rabies
cases worldwide, bats are
the cause of most rabies deaths in the Americas.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Rabies?
There is no test to detect the early stages
of rabies infection. After the onset of symptoms, a blood or tissue test will
help a doctor determine whether you have the disease. If you have been bitten
by a wild animal, doctors will typically administer a preventive shot of rabies
vaccine to stop the infection before symptoms set in.
Can Rabies Be Cured?
After being exposed to the rabies virus, you
can have a series of injections to prevent an infection from setting in. Rabies
immunoglobulin, which gives you an immediate dose of rabies antibodies to fight
the infection, helps to prevent the virus from getting a foothold. Then,
getting the rabies vaccine is the key to avoiding the disease. The rabies
vaccine is given in a series of five shots over 14 days.
Animal control will probably try to find the
animal that bit you so that it can be tested for rabies. If the animal isn’t
rabid, you can avoid the large round of rabies shots. However, if the animal can’t
be found, the safest course of action is to take the preventive shots.
Getting a rabies vaccination as soon as
possible after an animal bite is the best way to prevent the infection. Doctors
will treat your wound by washing it for at least 15 minutes with soap and
water, detergent, or iodine. Then, they’ll give you the rabies immunoglobin and
you’ll start the round of injections for the rabies vaccine. This protocol is
known as “post-exposure prophylaxis.”
Side Effects of Rabies Treatment
The rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin can
very rarely cause some side effects, including:
- pain, swelling, or itching at the
- stomach pain
- muscle aches
How to Prevent Rabies
Rabies is a preventable disease. There are
some simple measures you can take to help keep you from catching rabies:
- Get a rabies vaccination before
traveling to developing countries, working closely with animals, or working in
a lab handling the rabies virus.
- Vaccinate your pets.
- Keep your pets from roaming
- Report stray animals to animal
- Avoid contact with wild animals.
- Prevent bats from entering living
spaces or other structures near your home.
You should report any signs of an infected animal
to your local animal control or health departments.