Rabies is a zoonotic disease (a disease that is transmitted to humans from animals) that is caused by a virus. The disease infects domestic and wild animals, and is spread to people through close contact with infected saliva via bites or scratches.
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable viral disease which occurs in more than 150 countries and territories.
Infection causes tens of thousands of deaths every year, mostly in Asia and Africa.
40% of people who are bitten by suspect rabid animals are children under 15 years of age.
Dogs are the source of the vast majority of human rabies deaths.
Immediate wound cleansing and immunization within a few hours after contact with a suspect rabid animal can prevent the onset of rabies and death.
Every year, more than 15 million people worldwide receive a post-exposure vaccination to prevent the disease – this is estimated to prevent hundreds of thousands of rabies deaths annually.
Rabies is present on all continents with the exception of Antarctica, but more than 95% of
human deaths occur in Asia and Africa. Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is nearly always fatal.
Rabies is a neglected disease of poor and vulnerable populations whose deaths are rarely reported. It occurs mainly in remote rural communities where measures to prevent dog to human transmission have not been implemented. Under-reporting of rabies also prevents mobilization of resources from the international community for the elimination of human dog-mediated rabies.
The incubation period for rabies is typically 1–3 months, but may vary from <1 to="" week="">1 year. The initial symptoms of rabies are fever and often pain or an unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking or burning sensation (paraesthesia) at the wound site.1>
As the virus spreads through the central nervous system, progressive, fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops.
Two forms of the disease can follow. People with furious rabies exhibit signs of hyperactivity, excited behaviour, hydrophobia and sometimes aerophobia. After a few days, death occurs by cardio-respiratory arrest.Paralytic rabies accounts for about 30% of the total number of human cases. This form of rabies runs a less dramatic and usually longer course than the furious form. The muscles gradually become paralyzed, starting at the site of the bite or scratch. A coma slowly develops, and eventually death occurs. The paralytic form of rabies is often misdiagnosed, contributing to the under-reporting of the disease.
No tests are available to diagnose rabies infection in humans before the onset of clinical disease, and unless the rabies-specific signs of hydrophobia or aerophobia are present, the clinical diagnosis may be difficult. Human rabies can be confirmed intra-vitam and post mortem by various diagnostic techniques aimed at detecting whole virus, viral antigens or nucleic acids in infected tissues (brain, skin, urine or saliva).
People are usually infected following a deep bite or scratch by an infected animal. Dogs are the main host and transmitter of rabies. They are the source of infection in all human rabies deaths annually in Asia and Africa.
Bats are the source of most human rabies deaths in the Americas. Bat rabies has also recently emerged as a public health threat in Australia and western Europe. Human deaths following exposure to foxes, raccoons, skunks, jackals, mongooses and other wild carnivore host species are very rare.
Transmission can also occur when infectious material – usually saliva – comes into direct contact with human mucosa or fresh skin wounds. Human-to-human transmission by bite is theoretically possible but has never been confirmed.
Rarely, rabies may be contracted by inhalation of virus-containing aerosol or via transplantation of an infected organ. Ingestion of raw meat or other tissues from animals infected with rabies is not a source of human infection.
Eliminating rabies in dogs
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease. The most cost-effective strategy for preventing rabies in people is by eliminating rabies in dogs through vaccination. Vaccination of animals (mostly dogs) has reduced the number of human (and animal) rabies cases in several countries, particularly in Latin America. However, recent increases in human rabies deaths in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America suggest that rabies is re-emerging as a serious public health issue. Preventing human rabies through control of domestic dog rabies is a realistic goal for large parts of Africa and Asia, and is justified financially by the future savings of discontinuing post-exposure prophylaxis for people.
Preventive immunization in people
Safe, effective vaccines can be used for pre-exposure immunization. This is recommended for travellers spending a lot of time outdoors, especially in rural areas, involved in activities such as bicycling, camping, or hiking as well as for long-term travellers and expatriates living in areas with a significant risk of exposure.
Pre-exposure immunization is also recommended for people in certain high-risk occupations such as laboratory workers dealing with live rabies virus and other rabies-related viruses (lyssaviruses), and people involved in any activities that might bring them professionally or otherwise into direct contact with bats, carnivores, and other mammals in rabies-affected areas. As children are considered at higher risk because they tend to play with animals, may receive more severe bites, or may not report bites, their immunization could be considered if living in or visiting high risk areas.