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What is rabies?


Rabies is a serious viral illness that primarily affects animals, but can also affect humans. Rabies is derived from the Latin meaning “to rage,” as rabid animals can appear disturbed and angry. Most animal cases include cats, dogs, livestock, skunks, raccoons, bats, and rodents. Only mammals can contract rabies. Each year, 50,000 people around the world die of the disease.


How is rabies transmitted?


Rabies is transmitted to humans from a bite or a skin puncture by an infected animal. The rabies virus is present in the animal’s saliva. The rabies virus is strongly attracted to the nervous system and can travel to the spinal cord and brain.

What are the symptoms?


About a month or two after a bite from a rabid animal, humans complain of fever, headache, fatigue, and decreased appetite. There can also be pain or numbness at the bite site. One to two weeks later, nerve damage can appear with mental changes, hallucinations, seizures, and paralysis. Patients can develop severe pain with swallowing liquids. They complain of profound thirst, yet they avoid water. This is called, hydrophobia, or fear of water, which is another name for rabies. Without treatment, rabies is fatal.


How is rabies diagnosed?


If a person is bitten, it is extremely helpful if the animal can be quarantined. Then, the animal can be observed and tested for rabies infection which, if negative, would eliminate the diagnosis of rabies. If the animal cannot be isolated, then the physician may have to assume that rabies may have been transmitted, depending on the particular circumstances.


Rabies should be suspected when an individual displays the symptoms noted in the above section, particularly when neurological issues are present. Many physicians, however, might not consider rabies since they have probably never seen a case in their careers. Specialized medical centers can perform testing on the patient’s saliva, blood, and spinal fluid to establish the diagnosis.


Is treatment available?


Yes. With rabies, a vaccine is part of the treatment. Most immunizations, such as hepatitis and yellow fever vaccines, are given to prevent disease. Rabies vaccine is given after rabies exposure, even if there was pre-exposure vaccination. In addition to the vaccine, antibodies against rabies called rabies immune globulin (RIG), is recommended to help fight the infection. Although the vaccine and RIG are essential, immediate and thorough cleaning of the wound site with soap and water is critical. Urgent medical attention is strongly advised.


Can rabies be prevented?


The risk can be minimized. Make sure your pets have been vaccinated against rabies. In addition, avoid contact with unfamiliar and stray animals. If you are bitten or scratched by a cuddly kitten wandering in your neighborhood, capture the cat and call your doctor.


Do international travelers need to be protected?


Rabies is a significant health issue in Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America. Stray animals, both domestic and wild, may be frequently encountered abroad, especially in the developing world. In addition, proper rabies treatment in many of these regions may be difficult to obtain. Travelers should discuss their itinerary in detail with their travel physician before departure to assess the risk of rabies exposure. There are circumstances when your travel doctor may recommend the rabies vaccine prior to departure. Travelers headed to destinations where rabies is present should have a plan in place in the event a rabies exposure occurs.

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