What is rabies?
Rabies is a widespread infection
of warm-blooded animals. It is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. Rabies is a fatal disease; once the patient develops rabies, there is no cure.
What animals can transmit rabies?
In the wild, rabies occurs primarily in foxes, bats and skunks. The infection may pass from these wild animals to domestic cats, dogs, monkeys and livestock. Rabies is uncommon in squirrels, rabbits, rats and mice.
How is it transmitted?
When an infected animal bites another animal the rabies virus is transmitted in the infected animal's saliva. Even scratches of animals are dangerous since the animals keep licking their claws.
The rabies virus enters the body through a cut or scratch or through the mucous membranes such as the lining of the mouth and eyes. From there it travels to the brain and the spinal cord. Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in many different organs.
Bats can also transmit rabies through their excreta so that people who enter bat infested caves can "catch" rabies by breathing in the aerosols created by bats.
What are the symptoms?
The period from exposure to the rabies virus to the onset of illness (incubation period) in humans varies from 5 days to more than 1 year, with an average of 2 months. Initially, the symptoms are vague. The patient may have a fever, headache, malaise, decreased appetite and vomiting. There may also be pain, itching or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound.
Next, the patients develop difficulty swallowing even saliva, hence foaming occurs at the mouth. Even the sight of water may set off a spasm, hence the term hydrophobia. Some patients become agitated and disoriented, while others become paralysed and comatose leading to death.
What is the treatment?
Once the symptoms have developed, there is no known, effective treatment.
What can be done to prevent rabies?
Since there is no treatment for rabies, all efforts must be done to prevent it. Domestic cats and dogs should be immunized periodically against rabies. The veterinarian should be consulted. Children must not be allowed to play with stray animals.
What should be done in case of an animal bite or other possible rabies exposure?
If the bite only breaks the skin, treat it as a minor wound and wash it thoroughly with soap and water, apply an antibiotic cream, and cover it with a clean dressing.
If the bite is deep or the tissues are badly torn and bleeding, apply pressure to stop the bleeding and see your doctor immediately. If there are signs of infection (swelling, redness, pain, or fluid draining from the area), see the doctor immediately.
If the animal that has bitten behaves oddly or is foaming at the mouth, or has bitten without being provoked, see the doctor immediately, who will probably prescribe an anti-rabies vaccine. Modern vaccines are safer than the earlier injections. Only five injections are required.
If within the past 10 years, no immunization
against tetanus has been taken, then a tetanus booster dose must also be taken. It is always safer to consult the doctor regarding the recommendations for anti-rabies immunization. This will depend on the individual circumstances including:
- extent of rabies prevalent in the area
- type of animal - has it been immunized
- was the attack provoked or unprovoked
- was it a cut, scratch, or licking of an open wound
- on what part of the body is the wound - near the head and neck or away
- is the animal sick or well
- is the animal available for testing or quarantine - most cats and dogs become ill within 3 days but certainly by 10 days of shedding the rabies virus in their saliva.