It’s a short word, only six letters long, but it’s powerful when it comes to instilling abject fear and worry in our minds: rabies.
Just what is rabies?
Rabies is a very dangerous – and sometimes deadly – virus that infects the central nervous system of humans and other mammals, and found most commonly in skunks, foxes, raccoons, and bats. In humans, rabies can cause acute inflammation of the brain.
What are the symptoms of rabies in humans?
The first symptoms are similar to the flu and usually appear from one to three months after infection (although they have been known to appear within a week or a whole year before presenting symptoms). You could experience general weakness, discomfort, headache, a fever for several days. You also may feel discomfort or a prickling/itching sensation at the site of the bite/infection, which could progress in just a few days to anxiety, confusion, agitation, and cerebral dysfunction. As the disease progresses you could experience hallucinations, delirium, insomnia, and abnormal behavior, which usually lasts about two to 10 days. Death almost always follows.
In fact, once clinical symptoms appear, the disease is almost always fatal.
Death due to rabies is, happily, quite rare, because if you’re bitten by a suspected rabid animal, you’ll more than likely receive passive antibodies (via an injection of human immune globulin) as well as a round of rabies vaccine injections.
This is all very scary; how common is rabies in humans?
Well, it’s not uncommon. The World Health Organization says that between 26,000 to 55,000 people die of rabies worldwide each year.
However – and this is huge – the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that there are only about two cases of rabies in the U.S. each year and no deaths (since 1980), even though more than 40,000 Americans are exposed to the disease.
Why the discrepancy?
This primarily is due to the fact that most people in other countries become infected from dog bites (90 percent) in those areas where dogs have rabies. In the Americas, fewer than 5 percent of rabies cases are from dogs, because laws require that dogs receive rabies vaccinations. Americans who contract rabies usually get it from bats, particularly the silver-haired bat. (Thankfully, these bats rarely are found in or around homes.)
If I think I’ve been bitten by a rabid dog or bat, what should I do?
Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and running water. Do so continuously for 15 minutes, as this is believed to greatly cut back your chances of becoming infected. This is because the rabies virus actually is very weak and once saliva of the animal that bit you dries, the virus no longer is infectious. It’s easy to kill it by detergents, bleach, alcohol, soaps, and ultraviolet light.
Go to a hospital or doctor.
Get as much information about the animal as possible and notify your local or state health department, as well as local law enforcement.
How can I tell if a dog or other mammal is rabid?
The animal will exhibit aggression and could become hostile at the slightest of stimuli. You may notice the proverbial foaming at the mouth (excessive saliva).
If my pet becomes infected, is there a cure?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies in mammals once they exhibit symptoms. If your pet or another animal is suspected of having rabies, it probably will be humanely euthanized.
How can I prevent rabies in my dog?
Make sure she receives the correct vaccination on schedule from your veterinarian. Don’t forget: rabies vaccination is required by law in pets after they reach three months of age. (This law is likely why so few pets – and their owners – contract rabies in the U.S.).
For more information on protecting your pet from rabies, check out ASPCA.org.
If you see a dead animal on your property and you suspect it died of rabies, do not touch it! Instead, call your local health department or animal welfare department for disposal.
Clean the area where the animal lay with a 10 percent solution of bleach in water (nine parts water, one part bleach).