Rabies – How Can You Prevent It?

If a dog bites me, the first thing I would think of would be rabies.

Why rabies? Because an animal infected with rabies bites, scratches or licks on a broken skin or mucous membrane of a human being, the risk of contracting rabies is high. Rabies can be transmitted through solid transplant organs as well.

Rabies is caused by a virus and is capable of infecting all mammals. An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) says that rabies is a disease entrenched in history, dating back to ancient Egypt.

In the world, rabies kills 50,000 people each year. About 20,000 people die of rabies in India and the remainder occur in Southeast Asia (particularly the Philippines), Oceania, Africa and Latin America, says the CMAJ article.

Rabies can be contracted from dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. The article says that in Canada, between 2000 and 2005, a total of 2238 cases of confirmed animal rabies were reported (about 373 per year). Skunks accounted for 40 per cent of the cases, bats for 26 per cent, foxes for 11 per cent and raccoons for eight per cent.

Since 1924, 23 Canadians have died from rabies. Since 1985, only two deaths have been reported in Canada, both from bat exposure.

It is not always easy to make a diagnosis of rabies in humans. The incubation period can be long with 20–60 days on an average. Initial symptoms can be vague. Eventually, the virus infects the lining of the brain (viral encephalitis) with classic symptoms of hydrophobia, aerophobia, hyperexcitability and autonomic dysfunction. Most patients with these symptoms die within a few days as there is no effective treatment.

Diagnostic tests require fresh samples of brain tissue. Tests are not easily or rapidly available.

Since there is no effective treatment for rabies, prevention of the disease is very important. A void contact with wild or stray animals. The CMAJ article says all stray dogs in foreign countries should be presumed to have rabies, even if the animal appears friendly. All contact with bats should be avoided, and bats should never be handled. In addition, monkeys should not be handled, and food should not be carried when visiting areas where monkeys congregate.

If you have been bitten, scratched, or licked on mucous membranes or an open wound by any animal (especially in a foreign country) then take the following actions:
-Immediately wash the wound thoroughly and vigorously with soap and water, and iodine
-Seek medical treatment immediately to receive post-exposure vaccination (five doses over 30 days for those who have not previously received pre-exposure vaccination) and human rabies immune globulin (a single dose within seven days of the first vaccine dose if not previously vaccinated).
-The incubation period for rabies is usually 20–60 days, but it may be prolonged (more than a year); therefore, it is never too late to receive treatment before symptoms develop.

Rabies vaccine is effective and substantially reduces the risk of infection when given before or after potential exposure.

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