You’ve probably heard of rabies, if not in science class or at your vet’s office then in books and movies. The disease’s long history and neurotropic nature have made it an effective and enduring symbol of madness, irrationalism, and plague in popular culture.
Rabies has long been present as a perilous plot device in literature. In The Fox and The Hound, a rabid fox attacks a group of children. In Cujo, a family is terrorized bu their infected pet. In To Kill a Mockingbird, a rabid dog represents the prejudices of an entire town. Likewise, onscreen, the disease has haunted virtually every genre – from comedies and medical dramas to crime thrillers and horror films. Abiding and even apocalyptic in its nature, rabies is made to be quite terrifying.
In reality, it’s not far off. Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. The virus is present on every continent but Antarctica and in some areas it is endemic. Although efficient control is underway in most of the first world, rabies still kills about 70,000 people each year. To put that into perspective, one person dies every ten minutes of rabies.
Rabies is spread via the saliva of an infected animal – usually by a lick, bite, or scratch. While all warm-blooded species can become infected with the rabies virus, the main carriers are canine. In fact, more than 95% of human cases of rabies are due to bites from infected dogs. In North America, the primary carriers are bats.
Risk depends on several factors: your destination, the length of your trip, where you stay, what you do, and your access to medical care. Most human deaths occur in Asia and Africa, although Central and South America and the Caribbean are also at high risk. The most at-risk demographic is children (because they’re likely to try to play with animals), followed by those who work with animals.
Prevention & Control
The key to preventing human rabies is eliminating canine rabies. The only way to do this is with the mass vaccination of dogs in infected areas. If you are traveling to a foreign country with your pet, have it vaccinated against rabies.
The next best thing is preventative vaccination for humans. Before traveling, consult a health care professional or visit a travel health clinic. If you’re traveling to a high-risk area, get vaccinated. As an added precaution, avoid contact with all animals, wild or domestic. Don’t attempt to pick up, pet, feed or handle unfamiliar animals; just admire them from afar.
If you’ve been bitten by an animal and think you may be exposed to rabies, immediately wash the flush the wound with soap and water. Seek attention from a health care professional as soon as possible to assess your risk and treatment options, and report the bite to a veterinarian. Rabies can be treated, but once symptoms appear the disease is fatal, both in animals and humans.