Often people are in a panic about rabies due to misleading media articles and folklore. It is vital to understand the facts about rabies, correct exaggerated fears, and know what sensible precautions you can take to prevent rabies exposure, such as vaccinating your companion animals, and getting prompt post-exposure shots if bitten by a possibly rabid animal. Given all the media attention, people are surprised to learn that very few people die from rabies nationwide each year. Human fatalities due to lightning strikes and bad hamburgers far exceed the number of human deaths due to rabies. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about rabies; it means we should take sensible precautions, use common sense, and calm down!
Q. Can’t I get rabies by sitting on grass a rabid animal drooled on last night?
A. The virus cannot penetrate intact skin. People only get rabies via a bite from a rabid animal or through scratches, abrasions, open wounds, or mucous membranes contaminated with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal*. In addition, the virus is short-lived when exposed to the open air – the virus isn’t viable after saliva dries up. If you are handling a companion animal who has been in a fight with a potentially rabid animal, take precautions such as using gloves to prevent contact with any still-fresh saliva.
*If people are unsure about whether or not they have broken skin on their hands, suggest that they put their hands in rubbing alcohol to see if and where it stings.
Q. Can rabies be spread through feces or blood?
A. Rabies is NOT transmitted through the blood, urine, or feces of an infected animal, nor is it spread airborne through the open environment. Saliva provides the primary transmission medium when the animal is in the clinical stage of rabies. For the rabies virus to get to the salivary glands, it has to travel first from the site of entry (usually a bite wound) through the animal’s nervous system, then to the brain. This is what causes most rabid animals to exhibit abnormal behaviors, depending on what part of the brain is infected. Finally, the virus travels to the salivary glands during the terminal stage of rabies, prior to death. It is this later stage of rabies when an animal is most infectious because the virus is in the saliva.
Q. Don’t many people die every year of rabies in the U.S.?
A. Luckily, no human has ever died from the raccoon strain of rabies according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The handful of human deaths from rabies annually (avers: 2.4 a year, nationwide) has been largely due to a domestic bat strain or canine strain from abroad. Between 1981 – 2000, there were a total of 42 human fatalities to rabies of which 62% were bat strain (primarily silver-haired variant) and 31% were canine strain contracted overseas or in Mexico. No human fatalities to rabies were reported nationally in 1999. This low incidence doesn’t mean we can’t contract rabies, it just means we should continue taking sensible precautions to prevent exposures and seek prompt post-exposure prophylaxis when advised to do so by a doctor or local health department.
If you have been bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, wash the would thoroughly with soap, monitor the biting animal’s whereabouts, and contact your local health department for instructions, and your local animal control officer for assistance in capturing the animal for rabies testing.
Used with Permission. Fund Facts, Coexisting with Animals No. 5. The Fund for Animals. www.fund.org