Focus on Rabies

On this date in 1895, Louis Pasteur died in France. Pasteur was a French chemist who created a vaccine against rabies for people who have been exposed to the virus.

Even today, rabies kills 55,000 people each year. Almost every case of infection by the rabies virus in the world is due to dog bites, though pet dogs in the United States almost never transmit the disease. Most cases in the U.S. are traced to raccoons or bats, or foxes, skunks, or other wild animals. Only mammals get rabies, and it’s very rare in rabbits and small rodents. Animals that have become infected typically exhibit a change in behavior. Often, the animal will become more aggressive, even fearless—including in the face of humans or predators. Frothing at the mouth, the best known and most visible sign of the disease, is largely characteristic of the end stages, along with paralysis and strange sounds. Life expectancy for most animals is about a week.

The most common means of transmission is through bites—and nearly half the people bitten are under 15 years old. However, the virus that causes rabies can remain even in animals who have died of the disease. That’s why it’s important to avoid even touching dead animals if you don’t now for sure they didn’t have rabies. The disease can spread to humans if the animals blood or saliva comes in contact with an open wound or mucous membrane.

If an animal is acting strangely, report it to animal control whether it’s wild or it seems to be someone’s pet. In general, avoiding strange animals is part of protecting yourself from rabies. If you think you might have been exposed—if you’ve been bitten, or if you’ve handled a dead animal—it is urgent that you wash wounds thoroughly and seek immediate medical attention.

There is no confirmed treatment for rabies, so it is important to respond to exposure promptly. Rabies vaccine, or booster shots in people who have been previously vaccinated, must be administered right away. People who have not previously been vaccinated also receive the actual protein that is central to the immune response to rabies, directly in the wound.

An experimental treatment called the Milwaukee protocol is an alternative to vaccination, involving antiviral drugs and a medically induced coma. However, this treatment has only been successfully used in six patients since it was developed in 2004.

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