Rabies is a fatal viral disease that attacks the central nervous system.
Initial symptoms include extreme anxiety, headaches, fever, general malaise, and sensory problems. Subsequently the infected individual experiences paralysis, muscle spasms inhibiting swallowing, fear of water, delirium, and seizures. The disease lasts 2 to 14 days and death occurs in close to 100 percent of untreated patients. Death is caused by paralysis of respiratory muscles.
Rabies is transmitted by contact with the secretions of a rabid animal or person, delivered by a bite or when infected secretions contact a wound or a mucous membrane. Wild animals and dogs serve as reservoirs for the virus. The incubation period generally lasts 2 to 8 weeks, but can sometimes last several years. In cats and dogs, the infectious period starts about 3 days before symptoms appear. An animal that has bitten should be kept under close observation for a few days to see whether it develops any rabies symptoms. A rabid animal displays unusual behaviour: for example, wild animals lose their fear of humans, domestic animals become unusually calm or attack without provocation. Cases of person-to-person transmission have never been documented.
In general, you should avoid contact with wild animals or with domestic animals of unknown vaccination status. Report any bite to a physician within 24 hours, whether the animal appears healthy or not.
A rabies vaccine is currently available. It is generally indicated for people who expect to be in close contact with animals in areas where rabies has been reported. Three doses are administered over a 3-week period. A booster shot is recommended every 2 years, based on antibody titre results.
Any individual who has been bitten by a potentially rabid animal should receive the vaccine and immunoglobulins, even if the individual has already been vaccinated. The vaccination schedule should be initiated within 24 hours of the incident; five doses are necessary (on day 0, 3, 7, 14, and 28). Washing the wound with soap and water will considerably reduce the risk of transmission. The vaccine is frequently associated with fever and a general feeling of malaise.