Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.
The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses, including fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms.
Rabies in humans is 100% preventable through prompt appropriate medical care. Yet, more than 55,000 people, mostly in Africa and Asia, die from rabies every year – a rate of one person every ten minutes.
The most important global source of rabies in humans is from uncontrolled rabies in dogs. Children are often at greatest risk from rabies. They are more likely to be bitten by dogs, and are also more likely to be severely exposed through multiple bites in high-risk sites on the body. Severe exposures make it more difficult to prevent rabies unless access to good medical care is immediately available.
This major source of rabies in humans can be eliminated through ensuring adequate animal vaccination and control, educating those at risk, and enhancing access of those bitten to appropriate medical care.
What can you do?
- Vaccinate your pet
- Limit you, your family’s, and your pets exposure to wildlife
- Spay or neuter to decrease the number of stray animals
- Report any stray or ill animals to animal control
It’s important to remember that rabies is a medical urgency but not an emergency. Decisions should not be delayed.
Wash any wounds immediately. One of the most effective ways to decrease the chance for infection is to wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. See your doctor for attention for any trauma due to an animal attack before considering the need for rabies vaccination.
Your doctor, possibly in consultation with the state or local health department, will decide if you need a rabies vaccination. Decisions to start vaccination, known as postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), will be based on your type of exposure and the animal you were exposed to, as well as laboratory and surveillance information for the geographic area where the exposure occurred.
In the United States, postexposure prophylaxis consists of a regimen of one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine over a 14-day period. Rabies immune globulin and the first dose of rabies vaccine should be given by your health care provider as soon as possible after exposure. Additional doses or rabies vaccine should be given on days 3, 7, and 14 after the first vaccination. Current vaccines are relatively painless and are given in your arm, like a flu or tetanus vaccine.
Is the animal available for testing?
A healthy domestic dog, cat, or ferret that bites a person should be confined and observed for 10 days. Any illness in the animal during the confinement period or before release should be evaluated by a veterinarian and reported immediately to the local public health department.
If signs suggestive of rabies develop, postexposure prophylaxis should be initiated. The animal should be euthanized andsent for examination by a qualified laboratory.
If the biting animal is stray or unwanted, it should either be confined and observed for 10 days or be euthanized immediately and submitted for rabies examination.
Skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats that bite humans should be euthanized and tested as soon as possible. The length of time between rabies virus appearing in the saliva and onset of symptoms is unknown for these animals and holding them for observation is not acceptable.
After exposure to wildlife in which rabies is suspected, prophylaxis is warranted in most circumstances. Because the period of rabies virus shedding in wild animal hybrids is unknown, these animals should be euthanized and tested rather than confined and observed when they bite humans.
Vaccination should be discontinued if tests of the involved animal are negative for rabies infection.