The Ins and Outs of Rabies

By Dr Marthie Kleynhans

For those of you who live under a rock, rabies is a fatal disease and there is no cure for it! It is a dreadful disease that can easily be prevented, if you make sure that your animals are vaccinated against it. Once you or your pet contract rabies, it is a death sentence, as there is no cure for it. All pets must be vaccinated against rabies – it is required by law and in an outbreak, your pets may be euthanised if you have no proof of their rabies vaccination.

Rabies is an infectious viral disease that can affect both humans and animals. Most rabies-related human deaths are caused by dogs, and dogs contribute to 99% of all rabies transmissions to humans. Almost 60 000 humans are killed every year by rabies, and that’s only the reported cases. 95% of all rabies deaths occur in Africa and Asia. According to the World Health Organisation, 15 million people worldwide receive post-bite vaccinations.

How is rabies transmitted?

Rabies is transmitted through the saliva, which means that even a lick from a rabid dog can give you rabies. Rabies is not only carried by dogs, but cats and any wild mammals such as mongooses can also be carriers and they transmit it to you.

Rabies can be transmitted from wild reservoirs like jackals, mongooses and bats to domesticated animals like dogs, cats and livestock.

What are the clinical signs of rabies in animals?

The rabies virus, once it enters the blood stream, will move from the site of infection into the central nervous system, affecting the brain. Once the virus is in the brain, the animal will start to show abnormal behaviour.

Rabies can manifest in two different ways namely the dumb and the furious form.

The dumb form will include signs like paralysis of the face and neck muscles, difficult swallowing (it looks like a bone that is stuck in the throat), hyper salivation and inco-ordination.

The furious form will include signs like aggressiveness towards its owner or any other object, snapping, hyper salivation, running around wildly and excessive response to stimuli.

The two forms, in most cases, overlap making diagnosis on clinical signs alone extremely difficult.

Once the clinical signs start to show, there is no turning back – the mortality rate is 100%. Any animal or human showing clinical signs will die.

What are the clinical signs in humans?

In humans you also see both the dumb and furious forms. The first clinical signs include a fever with pain and an unusual tingling or burning sensation at the site of infection. The virus will then spread to the central nervous system where it will cause inflammation in the brain and spinal cord, which causes the clinical signs.

Clinical signs in humans include fever, hydrophobia (fear-of-water), hyper excitability, aggressiveness and paralysis. In the end the patients become comatose and die due to cardio-respiratory arrest.

Once the clinical signs manifest the patient will die!

Can rabies be cured?

No, but there is hope…

Rabies can be prevented! You can prevent your pets from getting rabies by simply vaccinating them twice as a baby and then yearly afterwards. By vaccinating your pets you create a protective ring around yourself and your family.

If you vaccinate your pet and a rabid wild animal comes into your yard and bites your pet, then your pet becomes the barrier that protects you from getting rabies.

You can ask your local state veterinarian to vaccinate your dog against rabies for free. It is very important to receive a follow-up vaccination 1-3 months after the initial vaccination to ensure that your pet is fully protected. Then after that your pet only needs annual vaccinations.

What must you do if you are bitten by a possible rabid animal, or if you have been in contact with one?

If you were bitten by an animal and there was a break in your skin (your skin is bleeding), immediately wash the wound thoroughly with running water and disinfecting soap for at least 15 minutes. Then seek immediate medical attention and inform your doctor that you were bitten by an animal that possibly had rabies. Do not suture your bite wounds, as it can cause further spread of the virus. You must receive a course of vaccinations and immunoglobulins in and around the bite wound.

If you were only in contact or close by a rabid animal and not sure whether or not you made contact, but there was no break in the skin, immediately seek medical attention to receive the course of vaccinations.

What will happen to your pet if it was in contact with a rabid animal?

If your animal has been vaccinated twice in its first year of life and again annually and you have proof that it was vaccinated, then you have nothing to worry about. You simply need to have your pet revaccinated immediately with the advised protocol by your vet.

But, if your animal has not received any vaccination or has received only one vaccination, without any follow-up vaccination, or has not received an annual vaccination within 3 years of its last vaccination, then according to law your animal must be euthanised and sent away for rabies testing.

Rabies vaccination is required by law! You must vaccinate your animals against it, or they may be euthanised.

Vaccinate to eliminate!

Rabies can be eliminated from the population if at least 70% of the population of pets are vaccinated – this should also include the rural areas.

So, please, climb out from underneath your rock and take your pets to be vaccinated and help us to eliminate this dreadful disease in our beautiful country.

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