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Monday, December 4, 2023

Rabies in Our Community: Should We Be Concerned?

Posted By: Advancing Care

Medically reviewed by Marina Keller, MD

Rabies is a 100% fatal viral disease if not diagnosed early and treated appropriately. Known primarily for affecting animals, it is one of the most deadly infections known to humans.

Thankfully, rabies is very rare in the U.S.; however, a possible exposure to a large group of people locally had members in our community talking about the virus.

Knowing the facts about rabies is key to preventing it, so we’re debunking common myths about its transmission, symptoms and treatment.

Rabies in our community

Myth: Rabies is only transmitted through wild animal bites

While wild animals such as bats, raccoons and foxes are common carriers of rabies, domestic animals can also contract and transmit rabies, especially if they’re unvaccinated.

As a viral disease, rabies is transmitted when the saliva of an infected animal enters an open wound or mucus membrane, such as your mouth, nose or eye. While bites are the most common mode of transmission, you may also be at risk of contracting rabies from licks or scratches from rabid animals.

Myth: An animal bite will be obvious

The leading cause of human rabies deaths in the U.S. is contact with infected bats. Due to their small size, bat bites or scratches may leave obvious puncture wounds that heal quickly. In some circumstances, you may not even realize you had contact with a bat — especially while camping or sleeping outdoors at night.

If you wake up in a room with a bat, see a bat on the ground near you or otherwise suspect that you were exposed to rabies (even with no physical wounds), it’s important to contact a medical professional immediately.  This is especially true for very young children who are unable to communicate their experiences.

Myth: The symptoms of rabies will appear shortly after a bite

Rabies has an incubation period of a few weeks to a few months, depending on what part of the body was exposed, the type of rabies virus and any existing immunity.

The first symptoms of rabies usually include weakness, fever, headache and discomfort or itchiness at the site of the bite. If the disease progresses without treatment, it may result in cerebral dysfunction, confusion, agitation, delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, fear of water and insomnia.

It’s important to know that, once clinical symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal, and why it’s so important to be cautious and see your doctor immediately after any potential exposure.

Myth: Rabies is always fatal

While rabies is deadly if left untreated, getting post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) administered promptly after a rabies exposure is highly effective in preventing the disease.

Your doctor and state or local health department can help determine if you need PEP depending on the type of exposure, breed of animal, whether the animal is available for testing and available surveillance information from the geographic area where the exposure occurred.

Myth: Rabies vaccines are painful

A few decades ago, treatment for rabies exposure involved 21 injections into a person’s stomach. But now, vaccination is much simpler and less painful. Rabies PEP involves an initial dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine over 14 days, all administered into the arm, much like a flu or tetanus shot.

Marina Keller, MD
Marina Keller, MD

How to prevent rabies

First and foremost, be sure to vaccinate your pets against rabies, as this will lower their chances of being infected and transmitting the virus to you. In addition, leave wildlife alone and wash any animal bites or scratches immediately with soap and water.

If you’ve been in contact with wildlife or unfamiliar animals, especially if you’ve been bitten, scratched or licked, contact your doctor to determine your risk for rabies.

Common signs of rabies in animals include excessive drool or saliva, aggressiveness or unusual friendliness, biting at imaginary objects and difficulty moving. Testing the animal you were exposed to for rabies helps determine if you need the post-exposure rabies vaccine.

Those at high risk for exposure to rabies, such as veterinarians, animal control workers or people traveling to rabies endemic regions, should consider pre-exposure vaccination.

For more information about rabies and your risk of exposure, reach out to a WMCHealth primary care provider.