Watching out for Rabies

World Rabies Day on September 28 calls for increased awareness

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) To many in the US, rabies may seem like something only seen in the movies, but the virus is very much a real life concern. Thankfully, there are steps people can take to reduce the presence of rabies.

To increase awareness of this deadly virus, World Rabies Day is being celebrated on September 28.

Organizers, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC), say that steps like vaccinating pets and keeping your distance from wild animals can help prevent rabies.

"Keep your distance from wild animals. "

According to GARC, rabies moves from the nervous system of one infected mammal to another mammal through saliva or tissues - typically through a bite or a scratch.

"The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system causing severely distressing neurological symptoms before causing the victim to die," explained GARC. "Rabies is the deadliest disease on earth with a 99.9 percent fatality rate."

Further, GARC stated that there are no symptoms immediately after the bite, but problems begin to arise once the virus travels through the nervous system and reaches the brain, usually one to three months later. Initial symptoms may include non-specific issues like fatigue, headache, discomfort and weakness, before developing into more extreme symptoms like insomnia, confusion, hallucinations, paralysis, agitation, problems swallowing and fear of water (hydrophobia). 

Thankfully, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) shots can stop the virus if given immediately after an exposure. According to CDC, an estimated 40,000 people in the US receive the PEP shot series in the face of a potential rabies exposure. 

CDC reported that public health costs associated with the virus amount to more than $300 million a year in the US. 

And in other parts of the world, rabies is an even bigger issue. Around the world, 55,000 deaths occur annually due to rabies - or around one death every ten minutes, says CDC.

"Most deaths are reported from Africa and Asia with almost 50 percent of the victims being children under the age of 15," explained CDC.

In the US, the majority of reported rabid animals are wild animals, like raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. However, most human exposure to rabies comes through domestic animals like cats or dogs. 

"One of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from rabies is to vaccinate your pets and avoid contact with wild animals," recommended CDC. "Do not feed or handle them, even if they seem friendly. If you see a wild animal acting strangely, report it to animal control."

In an interview with dailyRx News, Leana Wen, MD, MSc, emergency physician at Brigham & Women's/Massachusetts General Hospital, recommended caution, but not panic. Dr. Wen's rule of thumb: patients should seek treatment if bitten by animals they are not familiar with.

"If it's your own animal or someone's pet, make sure the animal's vaccinations are up to date. If they are, you're fine. If it's a wild animal, seek help," said Dr. Wen.

"There will a series of four shots. They are very effective, and if obtained timely, will protect you against getting rabies," Dr. Wen explained. "The most important thing is to wash out your wound if bitten, because that is what will decrease chance of infection."

World Rabies Day has been recognized annually around the globe since 2007.

Review Date: 
September 26, 2013
Last Updated:
September 28, 2013