by Kimberly Allen RN
The other evening I got a call from the guardian of a young girl I know. He said she had been bitten by a small rat and wanted to know what to do. I advised him that he needed to get her to the emergency room for an evaluation because rodents can carry numerous diseases. He called later after returning from the emergency room to tell me she had been given a tetanus injection and some type of antibiotic but that the Drs told him she didn’t need a vaccine for rabies because rats rarely carry rabies. So he asked me to look into it and sure enough small rodents like rats, squirrels and chipmunks as well as rabbits very rarely get rabies.
Rabies is a viral disease that causes an acute inflammation of the brain. It is one of those viruses that can be transmitted from one species to another like from a cat to a human usually from a bite by an infected animal. In the US, cats are the most common source of rabies from a domestic animal, while bats are the most common source of rabies accounting for approximately 75% of all human rabies cases. Other animals that are frequent sources of rabies in the US are raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. Most estimates are that approximately 40,000 people receive preventive treatment for rabies after exposure to a potentially rabid animal every year in the US. Approximately 90% of all reported cases of rabies in the US are due to a bite from a wild animal.
The rabies virus is spread in the saliva of infected animals. In order for you to get rabies you must first have contact with an animal that is already infected. Next, the contact must be sufficient to permit transmission of the infected saliva. Now, this can occur through a bite, which is the most common mode of transmission, but it can also occur if the animal scratches you and even if an infected animal should lick an open wound on your skin. I just want to note that though rabies can be transmitted by any mammal there has never been a documented case of rabies transmitted from human to human.
Symptoms of rabies usually appear anytime between 2 – 12 weeks after being infected however, there have been cases where symptoms manifested as early as 4 days after infection and some that were over 6 years after infection occurred. The time between infection and when symptoms appear depends on the severity and location of the infected wound and the amount of virus that was transmitted. Frequently there are only mild flu like symptoms including headache, fever, along with fatigue and irritability then most people develop pain, itching, and/or tingling around the site of infection. Then as the infection progresses you will notice you’re feeling more ill with a high fever, agitation and confusion gradually leading to seizures and coma.
Treatment must begin before the appearance of symptoms for optimal effect. Unfortunately death almost always occurs anytime from onset of symptoms to 10 days after onset as there is no specific treatment for rabies infection. Therefore anyone and everyone that there is even a possibility that they were exposed to rabies should seek medical attention immediately before any symptoms appear. The treatment before symptoms involves a series of injections, the first being a fast acting rabies immune globulin to prevent you from being infected with the virus, and at least part of the injection will be administered as close to the bite or point of believed exposure. Then you will need to receive 5 more injections over the next 14 days.
The best way to prevent rabies is to have your pets vaccinated against rabies and watch them when they are outside, especially if you live in a rural area where wild animals like racoons and skunks especially are also living. Small pets like rabbits and guinea pigs can not be vaccinated so they should be kept in protective cages or inside. Seal any crack or gaps in your home to prevent bats from entering as there are rabid bats in every state in the US except Hawaii. Always report and stray animals to local authorities.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.