What is rabies?
Rabies is a viral infection caused by a a group of viruses called lyssaviruses, which can affect all warm-blooded animals – notably humans, dogs, and bats. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, causing severe neurological changes such as abnormal and aggressive behaviour, hallucinations, and fear of water (hydrophobia).
As the virus progresses it can also cause inflammation of the brain and the tissues that protect the spinal cord (meningoencephalitis), partial paralysis, and seizures. Once the symptoms of rabies appear, the virus is almost always fatal. The rabies virus kills over 55,000 people every year, primarily in Africa and Asia.
There are two types of rabies – furious rabies and paralytic rabies.
Furious rabies is the most common type, accounting for around 80% of all cases, and is what is most often brought to mind when people think of rabies. Animals and humans that develop furious rabies may display erratic or aggressive behavior, start to produce a lot of saliva, and froth at the mouth.
Those displaying symptoms of furious rabies will also experience painful muscle spasms in the throat, especially when trying to drink water. This is known as hydrophobia, and it thought to happen because the rabies virus lives in the saliva – so reducing the amount of saliva in your mouth by drinking water would reduce the virus’ ability to spread. As the virus progresses, they will start to experience seizures and fall in and out of consciousness.
Paralytic rabies accounts for the remaining 20% of cases. People infected with this type of rabies slowly become paralysed, starting with a loss of sensation and muscle weakness around the area of the bite or scratch that infected them. As the virus progresses the infected will eventually fall into a coma and die.
We have a page dedicated to the symptoms of rabies if you’re looking for more information.
Where is rabies found?
The rabies virus can be found all across the world, and is present in over 150 countries across every continent (except Antarctica). Some island nations, such as the UK, Japan, and New Zealand, have completely eradicated the rabies virus through strict animal vaccination and quarantine programmes.
Some regions of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America have a high-risk of rabies, and it may also be difficult to access preventative treatment or follow-up care. Travelers heading to these regions should consider getting vaccinated before departing, especially those travelling to rural areas. For more information on the risk-level of rabies in each country, click here.
How is rabies spread?
The rabies virus lives in the nerves and saliva of a rabid humans and animals. Rabies is usually spread when you are bitten by a rabid animal, but rabies can also be caught if you are scratched by an infected animal or if their saliva gets into your eyes or mouth. Rabies is almost exclusively transmitted from animals. While there have been cases of human-to-human rabies transmission, these cases are very rare and mainly occurs through transplanted tissues, such as organ donors who were exposed to the virus.
After you’ve been infected, the virus travels throughout the nervous system and makes its way to the brain. Once the virus gets to the brain it rapidly multiplies, causing swelling of the brain and spinal cord (meningoencephalitis). Bites near the head or neck cause the symptoms of rabies to appear more quickly because the virus has less distance to travel before it gets to the brain.
Any warm-blooded animal can catch and transmit rabies, but the most common sources of rabies are:
While rabies can affect both domestic and wild animals, humans are most likely to catch rabies from domesticated dogs. Domesticated dogs are responsible for up to 99% of cases of rabies transmission to humans.
What should I do if I think an animal has rabies?
When travelling to a country with a risk of rabies, it is best to play it safe and stay away from all animals – including domesticated pets. If you think that you have encountered a rabid animal, you should keep your distance and try not to agitate the animal. Some rabid animals may become excited and chase you if you turn and run. The best thing to do in this situation is back away slowly and try to put solid objects between you and the animal until you are safely out of eyesight or it loses interest in you.
Once you are safe, report the rabid animal to local authorities to prevent it from injuring, and potentially infecting, somebody else.
Who is at risk of rabies?
While everyone who is in a country with a risk of rabies is potentially at risk of getting infected, certain groups of people are more likely to be exposed to the virus.
High-risk groups include:
Children under 15 years of age – children have a higher rabies exposure risk as they are more likely to play with animals, and most exposures are from dog bites. Children may also not report that they have been bitten or scratched by an animal and are also more likely to be bitten on the head or neck, which causes the symptoms of rabies to appear more quickly. If you are travelling with children, it is best to keep a close eye on them – especially around animals.
Travellers – travellers who are likely to come into contact with domesticated or wild animals are at a higher risk for rabies. The risk is even higher for travellers who are going to spend a lot of time doing outdoor activities, such as camping, caving, and hiking.
Wildlife professionals and veterinarians – those who have occupations that mean that they work closely with animals in regions with a risk of rabies are at a very high risk of being exposed to the rabies virus. Employer’s typically have a duty of care to make sure that employees who are exposed to health risks at work are properly cared for and vaccinated.