Posted on September 26, 2020
World Rabies Day is observed every year on 28 September to help raise awareness about rabies prevention and the impact of the disease on both humans and animals. Associate Professor Melvyn Quan of the Vectors and Vector-borne Diseases Research Programme in UP’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, offers insight on this preventable disease.
Rabies is a fatal viral disease that affects all warm-blooded animals. The virus is transmitted to humans through direct contact with the saliva of an infected animal, most commonly the domestic dog. Infection can occur either through the bite of an infected animal or through non-bite exposure such as scratches, abrasions or open wounds.
Rabies is more common in domestic dogs in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape and the Free State. Bats in South Africa do not transmit the rabies virus, but could transmit rabies-related viruses, such as Duvenhage and Lagos bat lyssaviruses, which are just as dangerous as rabies.
There is a highly variable time period between exposure to the virus and the onset of clinical signs. Deep or multiple bite wounds close to the head and neck might result in an incubation period of less than two weeks. On the other hand, there have been reports of incubation periods of more than two years.
The initial clinical signs in humans are non-specific and can include a fever, headache, irritability, depression, insomnia and anxiety. The bite site might tingle, itch or be painful. As the disease progresses, neurological and behavioural symptoms dominate, such as restlessness, incoherent speech, hallucinations and manic behaviour. There is a progressive loss of neurological function, which ultimately ends in death.
A person cannot be cured of rabies once he or she shows symptoms of the disease. Rabies is fatal and there is no treatment for the disease – but it is preventable. We can prevent rabies by vaccinating animals we are in close contact with, such as dogs and cats. Dog bites are responsible for most rabies cases in humans, so it is important to vaccinate your pets against rabies after the age of three months.
Do not touch, pick up or play with a strange animal that appears to be sick or injured. Animals infected with rabies might not only be “furious” and aggressive, but can also appear “dumb” or paralysed. They may experience muscle paralysis, produce lots of saliva and experience difficulty in swallowing. Some animals might appear to have a bone stuck in the throat. Be very wary of wild animals that suddenly appear tame and come into close contact with humans. Wild animals that could be infected with rabies include, among others, the jackal, fox, mongoose and kudu.
Tissue and milk from a rabid animal, such as a cow, should not be used for human or animal consumption. Meat that has been cooked and milk that has been pasteurised should not pose a danger. Those who drink raw milk and butcher carcasses should be vaccinated against rabies as a precaution. People that work closely with animals and have an increased occupational risk of exposure to infection, such as veterinary staff, animal handlers and abattoir workers, should be vaccinated prophylactically against rabies.
If you are bitten by an animal that may have rabies, thoroughly wash and disinfect the wound, immediately consult a medical doctor or clinic, and contact your nearest veterinarian or animal health technician. Even if there has been direct contact with a rabid animal, with no breach of the skin or bleeding (such as bruising), it is important to visit a healthcare professional and get vaccinated.
No one should have to die from rabies – so please, vaccinate your pets.
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