Q&A: Rabies


A rare case of rabies has been confirmed in London, the Health Protection Agency has confirmed.

But how common is the disease worldwide – and how is it being tackled?

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system.

It is a zoonotic disease – one passed on to humans from animals. It is transmitted via saliva from infected animals – most commonly dogs.

Bats can also be a source of a rabies-like infection. But deaths after exposure to foxes, racoons, jackals and other wild carnivores are rare.

Rabies is sometimes also known as hydrophobia – because of a symptom which can occur where patients have great difficulty swallowing and are unable to quench their thirst.

Rabies facts

  • Rabies occurs in more than 150 countries and territories
  • More than 55 000 people die of it every year.
  • 40% of those bitten are children aged under 15
  • Dogs are the source of 99% of human rabies deaths.
  • Wound cleaning and immunization within a few hours after contact with a suspect rabid animal can prevent the onset of rabies and death.
  • Each year, more than 15m people worldwide are treated after exposure – this is estimated to prevent 327 000 rabies deaths annually

How does it develop?

The incubation period is usually between two and eight weeks – though it can be longer. It affects the central nervous system and initial symptoms include anxiety, headaches and fever.

As it spreads through the central nervous system, progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops.

There are two forms of the disease.

The “furious” form develops rapidly. Patients display signs such as hyperactivity and death occurs within days due to respiratory arrest.

“Paralytic” rabies accounts for around 30% of cases. It develops less rapidly. Muscles gradually become paralysed, a coma slowly develops eventually leading to death.

Rabies can only be diagnosed once symptoms have developed.

Can it be passed between people?

There are no documented cases – but those close to someone who is infected will sometimes be offered immunisation as a precaution.


BBC has the full article

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