Rabies Transmitted From Animals to Humans

Rabies is a viral infection that is transmitted to humans from animals. Without treatment, it is fatal. Prevention and treatment are available and should be discussed with a physician before departure.

What is rabies?

This is a serious viral illness that primarily affects animals, but can also affect humans. Rabies is derived from the Latin meaning ‘to rage’ as rabid animals can appear disturbed and angry. Most animal cases include cats, dogs, livestock, skunks, raccoons, bats and rodents. Only mammals can contract this disease. Each year, 50,000 people around the world die of the disease.

How is rabies transmitted?

This disease is transmitted to humans from a bite or a skin puncture from an infected animal. This virus is present in the animal’s saliva. This virus is strongly attracted to the nervous system and can travel to the spinal cord and brain.

What are the symptoms?

About a month or two after a bite from a rabid animal, humans complain of fever, headache, fatigue and decreased appetite. There can also be pain or numbness at the bite site. One to two weeks later, nerve damage can appear with mental changes, hallucinations, seizures and paralysis. Patients can develop severe pain with swallowing liquids. They complain of profound thirst, yet they avoid water. This is called, hydrophobia, or fear of water, which is another name for rabies. Without treatment, the disease is fatal.

How is rabies diagnosed?

If a person is bitten, it is extremely helpful if the animal can be quarantined. Then, the animal can be observed and tested for the infection which, if negative, would eliminate the diagnosis of this disease. If the animal cannot be isolated, then the physician may have to assume that the disease may have been transmitted, depending upon the particular circumstances.

Rabies should be suspected when an individual displays the symptoms noted in the above section, particularly when neurological issues are present. Many physicians, however, might not consider this disease since they have probably never seen a case in their careers. Specialized medical centers can perform testing on the patient’s saliva, blood and spinal fluid to establish the diagnosis.

Is treatment available?

Thankfully, yes. In rabies, a vaccine is actually part of the treatment. Most immunizations, such as hepatitis and yellow fever vaccines, are given to prevent disease. This vaccine is given after exposure even if there was pre-exposure vaccination. In addition to the vaccine, antibodies against this disease called rabies immune globulin (RIG), is recommended to help fight the infection. Although the vaccine and RIG are essential, immediate and thorough cleaning of the wound site with soap and water is critical. Urgent medical attention is strongly advised.

Can rabies be prevented?

The risk can be minimized. Make sure your pets have been vaccinated against this disease. In addition, avoid contact with unfamiliar and stray animals. If you are bitten or scratched by a cuddly kitten wandering in your neighborhood, capture the cat and call your doctor.

Do international travelers need to be protected?

Rabies is a significant health issue in Asia, Africa, Central America and South America. Stray animals, both domestic and wild, may be frequently encountered abroad, especially in the developing world. In addition, proper treatment in many of these regions may be difficult to obtain. Travelers should discuss their itinerary in detail with their travel physician before departure to assess the risk of exposure to this disease and other preventable infectious diseases. There are circumstances when your travel doctor may recommend a vaccine prior to departure. Travelers headed to destinations where rabies is present should have a plan in place in the event exposure occurs.

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