Question of the Week

November 3, 2008


In October, rabies was in the news:

"About 90 elementary school students in Montana have started a series of rabies shots after a parent let them touch a dead bat that was later confirmed to be diseased. ... The mother of two students gave presentations in five classrooms and allowed the kids to touch the dead bat last week. She offered each student who touched the bat a sanitary wipe. The exposed students will receive six shots of anti-rabies vaccine."

Animals are tested for rabies if the disease is suspected and there is the chance that they have put people at risk. The tests are typically done after the animal has died -- or been killed because it has shown itself to be a threat to humans.

"Testing for rabies in animals is done postmortem and may be necessary to determine the rabies exposure risk to humans."

While most cases of rabies in the United States are reported in wild animals, some pets can be affected if they are not properly vaccinated.

"Rabies is a disease that naturally affects only mammals (like raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats). You cannot get rabies from birds, snakes or fish. In the United States, rabies is much more common in wild animals than in pets like cats or dogs. This is because most people who take good care of their pets make sure that their pets get the rabies vaccinations."

Most animals do not attack humans. It is even less likely for a healthy animal to attack a human for no apparent reason. When an animal does attack, it is important to have that animal checked for disease.

An unprovoked attack by an animal is more likely than a provoked attack to indicate that the animal is rabid. Bites inflicted on a person attempting to feed or handle an apparently healthy animal should generally be regarded as provoked. ... A currently vaccinated dog, cat, or ferret is unlikely to become infected with rabies."

Whether or not there has been an incident with a potentially rabid animal, it is important for children and adults to understand the importance of making safe choices when encountering any animal -- whether it is a wild animal that may or may not be healthy or a pet that is ill, deceased, or behaving strangely.

"Rabies virus is transmitted through specific bodily excretions and tissue. Saliva and Brain/Nervous tissue are considered infectious materials that can transmit rabies virus. ... Rabies is transmitted only when the virus is introduced into a bite wound, open cuts in skin, or onto mucous membranes (such as the mouth or eyes). When an exposure has occurred, the likelihood of rabies infection varies with the nature and extent of that exposure. Under most circumstances, two categories of exposure -- bite and nonbite -- should be considered. Any penetration of the skin by teeth constitutes a bite exposure. ... Bites by some animals, such as bats, can inflict minor injury and thus be difficult to detect. Nonbite exposures from terrestrial animals rarely cause rabies. ... The contamination of open wounds, abrasions, mucous membranes, or theoretically, scratches (potentially contaminated with infectious material from a rabid animal) also constitutes a nonbite exposure."

Even if an animal appears healthy, a bite wound should be cleaned, treated, and checked by a health care professional. If at all possible, having the animal checked for disease can help victims of attack and health care professionals determine the best course of treatment.

"Regardless of the risk of rabies, anyone who treats bite wounds must recognize and treat serious injury (e.g., nerve or tendon laceration), avoid infection (both local and systemic), and strive for the best possible cosmetic results. For many types of bite wounds, immediate gentle irrigation with water or a dilute water povidone-iodine solution has been shown to markedly decrease the risk of bacterial infection. Wound cleansing is especially important in rabies prevention since, in animal studies, thorough wound cleansing alone without other postexposure prophylaxis has been shown to markedly reduce the likelihood of rabies. Tetanus prophylaxis should be administered if you have not been immunized in ten years. Decisions regarding the use of antibiotics, and primary wound closure should be decided in advisement with your physician or health care provider."

If rabies is suspected, or if people intend to travel overseas to countries where rabies is more prevalent, it is important to talk with a health care professional. Knowing how rabies is (and is not) transmitted can help patients know when to check with their doctors, and what they can to decrease the likelihood that they contract the disease.

"Rabies infections in people are rare in the United States. However, worldwide about 50,000 people die from rabies each year, mostly in developing countries where programs for vaccinating dogs against rabies don't exist. But the good news is that problems can be prevented if the exposed person receives treatment before symptoms of the infection develop. Rabies is a virus that in the U.S. is usually transmitted by a bite from a wild infected animal, such as a bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox. If a bite from a rabid animal goes untreated and an infection develops, it is almost always fatal. If you suspect that your child has been bitten by a rabid animal, go to the emergency department immediately. Any animal bites — even those that don't involve rabies — can lead to infections and other medical problems. As a precaution, call your doctor any time your child has been bitten."

Question of the Week:
What should you, your friends, and your family members know about rabies no matter where you live? Depending on where you live, is there different or additional information that you should have? How might this information vary from person to person? What might cause the risk of exposure to vary from person to person? How can being educated about rabies help you reduce your likelihood of contracting the disease and/or know what to do if you suspect that you or someone you know might be at risk?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

Request Question of the Week by email 
QoW Archives: 9/2002 - 8/2003 9/2003 - 8/2004 9/2004 - 8/2005 9/2005 - 8/2006 9/2006 - present

Custom Search on the AE Site