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Infectious Disease

Rabies Can Be Fatal, Spread by Animal Bites

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 6000 humans were infected with rabies in 2010. Once the symptoms start to show, the disease is almost always fatal. However, infection and death are preventable with early detection. Here is a guide to preventing rabies from becoming deadly:

Overview
The dangerous rabies virus spreads from the saliva of infected animals, and the most common form of infection is a bite, the CDC explains. The bullet-shaped virus inserts itself into the body’s existing cells, then alters the genetic code of those cells.  When the virus is first introduced to the bloodstream, medical intervention can still arrest the infection. Once it travels through the spinal cord and reaches the brain, it begins to multiply and cause dramatic symptoms.  By the time the symptoms appear, the infection is unstoppable, according to medical experts. While the incubation period can last a number of weeks, death usually hits within a few days after symptoms appear.

Symptoms
Rabies symptoms are only visible late in the disease’s progress, and the first signs usually precede death by a matter of days. Anyone bitten by an animal should seek medical help immediately, regardless of whether or not symptoms appear. At first, an individual might feel discomfort, prickling or itching around the bite. The untrained eye can often spot the telltale signs of rabies, which include: a fear of water (hydrophobia), excessive salivation, partial paralysis and hallucinations. These unmistakeable signs may be accompanied by fever, headache, or insomnia. A person or animal infected with rabies will start to seem confused, and they often act agitated and anxious.

Cause
The rabies virus spreads via the saliva of infected animals and is usually transmitted through an animal bite. Very rarely, rabies spreads when infected saliva comes into contact with an open wound, the mouth or eyes. Any mammal is susceptible to the rabies virus, but humans come in contact with some animals more than others. Common wild animals that may infect humans include: bats, beavers, coyotes, foxes, monkeys, raccoons, skunks and woodchucks.  Pets and farm animals can also transmit the virus, and the most likely to infect humans include: cats, cows, dogs, ferrets, goats, horses and rabbits. According to the CDC, no record exists of rabies transmission from one living human to another. In extremely rare cases, however, the virus has been transmitted during organ or tissue transplants from an infected donor.

Treatment
Once the symptoms are visible, rabies is almost always fatal. To date, there have been fewer than 10 documented cases of survival, reports the CDC. However, in the window before the symptoms appear, the disease can still be stopped from progressing. During this incubation period, the virus has not yet reached the brain. As such, anyone who may have been exposed to rabies must receive a series of shots to stop the infection in its tracks. There are two types of rabies shots. A fast-acting shot of rabies immune globulin keeps the virus from infecting you. The doctor may recommend a series of shots, instead. These vaccines are administered over two weeks, and just like with any vaccine, they help your body spot and combat the virus. If you have been bitten by an animal and a veterinarian has successfully determined that the animal is rabies-free, you may not need to receive any shots.