Rabies occupies a special place in our cultural knowledge pool – it immediately conjures up images of dogs frothing at the mouth or of bats out for blood. What exactly is rabies, though? Is it really the strange, incurable disease that we’ve been shown in countless films and television shows? Does it cause the sufferer to immediately start frothing at the mouth? With more than 29 million people worldwide receiving a post-bite vaccination every year in order to survive, rabies is still very much a global issue. To shed light on this mysterious disease, in this blog we explore what the rabies disease actually is and how it is properly treated.
What is rabies?
The rabies viral disease is scientifically termed a lyssavirus. A lyssavirus is a single-stranded, bullet-shaped, enveloped RNA virus, and also includes viruses similar to rabies, such as the Australian bat lyssavirus. There in fact exist two different forms of rabies: furious rabies or paralytic rabies. In furious rabies, infected individuals experience hyperactivity and hydrophobia (a fear of water), with death following only a few days later as a result of cardiac-arrest. Paralytic rabies (accounting for 20% of all human cases) has a much slower effect, causing muscle weakness and paralysis with coma and death following afterwards. Rabies is usually transferred from the saliva from an infected mammal through a bite or scratch, but it is also possible if diseased-ridden saliva contacts the eyes, mouth, or nose of another mammal. The site and amount of contact has an effect on the incubation period for rabies, which is typically 2–3 months but can vary from 1 week to 1 year. Without early treatment with a rabies vaccine, rabies will usually kill sufferers.
How and where rabies is spread and prevention
As depicted in popular culture, rabies is for the most part transferred through dog bites, making up 99% of cases. These infections do not usually occur in the Western world, with 95% of cases instead occurring in Asia and Africa. After a bite occurs with a suspected rabies-infected mammal, it is recommended that immediate wound washing take place – the infected spot should be cleaned with soap or iodine for fifteen minutes, as there is a good chance this will kill the rabies virus. Otherwise, the main treatment for rabies prevention is a pre-infection vaccine. Unfortunately, this vaccine is not readily accessible in countries where rabies occurs the most, which is highly problematic. Instead, awareness campaigns in these countries are one of the predominant forms of prevention, Interestingly, it can take up to three months to develop symptoms of the rabies virus. By this time, it is too late to offer effective treatment.
Ensuring a preventable death
Despite rabies not being a huge issue in firs world countries, those travelling to countries such as Africa and Asia should be aware of the problems that rabies has for those that live there. With this in mind, getting a pre-infection vaccine is by far the best course of action to ensure long-term health. Despite rabies occurring infrequently in places like North America, the disease should not be ignored altogether – bats are carriers in North America, so if you get bitten, make sure not to discount it. Instead, wash the wound and visit your local hospital as soon as possible.