Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system.
Rabies is transmitted through the bodily fluids of infected animals. The virus, which is spread through bites, scratches, or a contact with infected bodily fluids, must enter the body through broken skin or pass through a mucous membrane (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth).
In North America, animals most likely to spread rabies are bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Among travelers, dog and monkey bites are the most common. The vast majority of rabies cases in the world are due to dog bites. A rabid animal usually exhibits unusual behaviour (e.g., a wild animal not fearful of being approached or domestic animal that attacks without being provoked).
Early symptoms of rabies include nonspecific flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, or fever. As the disease progresses, it affects the nervous system causing symptoms like anxiety, irritability, fear of water, muscle spasms, and difficulty swallowing and breathing.
In humans, the incubation period, which is the time between the entry of the virus into the body and the onset of symptoms, usually varies between 20 and 90 days. From the moment symptoms appear, death is almost inevitable and occurs in most cases within 14 days if no preventive measures are taken.
Generally speaking, it is best to avoid contact with wild and domestic animals when the vaccination status is unknown, regardless of whether the animal is dead or alive. If you have a domestic animal, make sure that it has been vaccinated against rabies. If you are injured by a potentially infected animal, clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes, as this can significantly reduce the chance of contracting the virus. Afterwards, a healthcare professional should be consulted to determine if further treatment is needed.
A rabies vaccine is available. It is indicated as a preventive measure in those who work with animals or those traveling to certain countries where rabies is more prevalent. Speak to a health professional to find out if you should be vaccinated.
In order to prevent the development of the disease, anyone who has been exposed to rabies, even if previously vaccinated against rabies, must receive prompt treatment. This treatment consists of the administration of human rabies immunoglobulin or a rabies vaccination. These treatments may be difficult to obtain in some parts of the world.
When should I see a healthcare professional?
If you have been in contact with a potentially infected animal, see a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
If you get sick after you return from a trip or if you were sick while you were away, see a healthcare provider upon your return. Medical attention may be required.