Rabies: What you need to know



Commentary by Tech. Sgt. Larendez D. Lindsey
42nd Medical Group


7/23/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- Rabies is a deadly viral infection that is mainly spread by infected animals. This potentially fatal virus is transmitted to humans by an infected animal's saliva through a bite wound, contact with mucous membranes or broken skin. The virus travels from the wound to the brain, where it causes swelling or inflammation, and this inflammation leads to symptoms of the disease. Humans can become infected and harbor the virus for weeks to months, and in extremely rare cases, even years before becoming ill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, early symptoms may be very similar to the flu. As the disease progresses, anxiety, confusion, hallucinations and difficulty swallowing may appear eventually leading to death.

In the past, human cases in the United States usually resulted from a dog bite, but recently, more cases of human rabies have been linked to raccoons and skunks because wild animals are not typically vaccinated. Although dog bites are a common cause of rabies in developing countries, there have been no reports of rabies caused by dog bites in the United States for a number of years due to widespread animal vaccination in the United States. Vaccinating prevents illness!

What do I do if I get bitten or scratched? You should try to gather as much information about the animal as possible, clean the wound well with soap and water and seek professional medical help immediately.

What can I expect from my medical provider? Your medical provider will thoroughly cleanse the wound and assess your risk for rabies. If you have not had a Tetanus shot in the past 10 years, one will be given to you. If there is any risk of rabies, you will be given a series of a preventive vaccine. This is generally given in four doses over 14 days. Most patients also receive a treatment called human rabies immunoglobulin given the day the bite occurred.

Most domesticated animals involved in a bite will be watched for signs of rabies. Local authorities should be called to capture stray or wild animals. A special test called immunofluorescence is used to look at the brain tissue after an animal is dead.

It's possible to prevent rabies if immunization is given soon after the bite. To date, no one in the United States has developed rabies when given the vaccine promptly and appropriately. Once symptoms appear, the person rarely survives the disease, even with treatment. Death from respiratory failure usually occurs within seven days after symptoms start.

To reduce your risk of exposure to rabies, you should:

Avoid contact with animals you don't know.

Get vaccinated if you work in a high-risk occupation or travel to countries with a high rate of rabies.

Make sure your pets receive the proper immunizations. Dogs and cats should get rabies vaccines by 4 months of age, followed by a booster shot a year later and another one every one or three years, depending on the type of vaccine used. Early treatment provides close to 100 percent protection. That's why it is imperative to seek immediate medical attention.
For additional information about rabies, visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov or call the 42nd Medical Group Public Health Office at 953-5616.