Around 55,000 people die each year from rabies worldwide, with almost all occurring in Asia and Africa. In Britain the disease has been all but eliminated, with the last case of classical rabies occurring in 1902.
Rabies in the UK disappeared through a mixture of routine immunisation of animals vulnerable to the disease, and compulsory quarantines – with strict laws imposed on animals coming into the country.
People working with animals or travelling abroad should still be on guard though. Rabies attacks the central nervous system and is especially dangerous because it is so difficult to diagnose – high temperature and intense anxiety characterise the disease in its early stages. The fact a person can be infected without symptoms becoming apparent for months is also problematic.
Eventually symptoms intensify if left untreated, and respiratory problems are accompanied by violent muscle spasms that prove deadly.
Vaccination offered to those leaving the UK or those working with animals is effective in combating rabies. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can prevent the disease, even if it is administered a protracted period of time after the bite has taken place. These preventative measures are essential, as once fully contracted, with symptoms reaching the latter stages, survival is rare.
Rabies myths and misconceptions
- Foaming at the mouth means rabies in dogs – While foaming can be a sign of rabies, it can be the result of a number of other issues in dogs. Nevertheless, it is worth consulting a vet, especially where the dog is experiencing a change in behaviour
- You can only get rabies from bites – Always see a doctor after a bite. But be aware that being scratched or having open wounds come into contact with saliva or other animal bodily fluids can also result in contraction.
- Rabies is always fatal – Treatment within 24 to 48 hours of contraction usually ensures a case of rabies isn’t fatal. Avoid treatment, however, and survival rates drop dramatically.
- Rabid dogs fear water – although humans often develop hydrophobia as a symptom of rabies, dogs don’t have this problem.
- Rabies vaccination and treatment is extremely painful – Modern vaccination is a much more confortable procedure than in generations gone by. Previously large needles were used directly into the abdomen, but today a small injection into the arm is the preferred way to administer the rabies vaccine.
If you are travelling abroad, check the prevalence of rabies in the country you are visiting. If the country is high risk you can visit the Express Travel Clinic website for an online consultation or book an appointment to come in and receive advice and treatment.