Anyone who’s read Old Yeller knows (spoiler alert!) what happens to the title dog in the book. In this day of vaccinations against rabies, though, many people don’t give rabies more than the thought required to take their pets to the vet.
Yet rabies is still around, present in many mammals, including raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, and contact with any infected animal can mean infection for you or an unvaccinated furry pet.
In fact, about 55,000 people still die every year from rabies, which translates into a death every 10 minutes.
Rabies is a viral disease. The virus attacks the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord—and eventually is fatal (although there are extremely rare cases of survival). Symptoms, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are non-specific in the beginning—a fever, a headache, a general feeling of being unwell. But eventually, they progress to neurological symptoms, including hallucinations, confusion, paralysis, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (as the disease is called in Old Yeller). Once these symptoms are present, death is only days away.
Usually, rabies is transmitted through a bite, transferred via the saliva of the infected animal, although rarely it transfers through other routes, such as via the air or transplantation of infected organs. The virus itself triggers no symptoms for up to 12 weeks even as it multiplies and invades the brain and spinal cord. When symptoms finally show up, an infected organism dies within about seven days.
Vaccines against rabies are available for animals, but worldwide, dogs remain the most common source of rabies infection in people, and children are at greatest risk. Vaccination could reduce or eliminate this risk, and a goal of the World Rabies Day campaign is to ensure more widespread vaccination of dogs. Since the campaign began in 2007, 4.6 million dogs have been vaccinated thanks to awareness events. This year’s goal is to grow that number even more.
Vaccinations also exist for people, especially post-exposure vaccinations. They once had a dire reputation as painful shots administered in the stomach, but now they’re shots in the arm and no more painful than other vaccinations. These shots include a shot given the day of exposure followed by more shots in an arm muscle on days 3, 7, and 14, according to the CDC. However, there is a short window of time for these vaccines to be effective; they must be administered preferably within a day of exposure. For people who have already had rabies vaccinations, a briefer round of further shots is required.
What should you do if you think you’ve come into contact with a rabies-infected animal? The CDC has a few guidelines:
- Consider the situation urgent but not an emergency. Get medical help as soon as you can.
- Wash a wound immediately with soap and water, which decreases the chance of infection.
- Get immediate medical attention for acute trauma from a wound before worrying about rabies infection.
- Once immediate considerations are addressed, your doctor and the relevant health department will determine if you need vaccination.
Remember, above all, keep your pets vaccinated against rabies, and stay away from wild animals, especially those known to carry the virus. For more information, see the World Rabies Day website.
Image courtesy of secad.ie