World Rabies Day: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Rabies

More than 55,000 people die from rabies each year. For those of us who live in the United States, that statistic seems unfathomable — rabies isn't very common in our country. But in other parts of the world, especially Africa and Asia, the deadly and incurable virus remains a huge problem for both humans and animals.

World Rabies Day was created in 2007 to raise awareness about the global public health impact of the disease. In honor of this important day, we rounded up some facts that every person, whether a pet owner or not, should know about rabies.

5 Facts About Rabies

Dog getting vaccine at vet's office


Rabies Is Preventable

Vaccinating your pet is key to preventing rabies and helping keep humans and animals safe. If your cat or dog contracts rabies, he cannot be cured. In most states, dogs and cats are required by law to be vaccinated against the disease and thankfully, legal and educational efforts to prevent rabies have proven successful. The number of cases of canine rabies in the United States dropped from 8,384 in 1946 to only 93 in 2009. It’s a no-brainer: Get your pet vaccinated.

Scary closeup of dog's teeth


Rabies Is Horrifying

Rabies is a cruel and deadly virus — and our fear of the disease has pervaded our culture throughout history. Rabies could be why many of our horror stories are about being bitten by werewolves, vampires and zombies. Rabies even plays an important role in classic American books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Old Yeller. As Dr. Marty Becker writes in his review of Rabid: a Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virusbefore vaccination protocols, rabies was so feared that dogs in England and France were killed by mobs or beaten to death.

In developing countries in Asia and Africa, the horrors of rabies are all too real. Ninety percent of rabies victims are bitten by rabid dogs, and 50 percent of those victims are children.

Dr. Carrie LaJeunesse at a vaccine clinic in Liberia

Veterinarians Without Borders

We’re Still Fighting Rabies Abroad

In 2013, Dr. Carrie La Jeunesse visited Liberia while working for Veterinarians Without Borders U.S. La Jeunesse was working at a vaccination clinic when she was bitten by a dog. Because the dog was not vaccinated against rabies, she needed a postexposure vaccination within 24 hours of the bite. Thankfully, she was able to get the life-saving vaccine in Monrovia, Liberia.

But many people in developing and impoverished countries are not so lucky. Without ready access to postexposure inoculation, they are unlikely to survive if bitten by a dog with the disease: Rabies has a 100 percent fatality rate. And the rabies vaccine is too expensive for most Liberians, who live on the equivalent of $1 a day. Thanks to programs like Veterinarians Without Borders, many impoverished people can get the vaccination for their animals. However, these countries face many more obstacles, including lack of refrigeration for the vaccines and rampant stray dog populations.

Doctor looking at chart


Doctors Can Learn a Lot About Rabies From Vets

Veterinarians are trained to be vigilant when looking for the signs of rabies in animals. But human doctors aren’t always so cautious. In 2013, a man died from rabies because he was infected by a donated organ. Dr. Patty Khuly says the veterinary community would have tested the donor for rabies (he spent a lot of time outside and died from a neurological condition of unknown origin). Vets are trained to automatically assume that all mammalian patients without vaccination records who have central nervous system symptoms could have rabies. Khuly thinks tragedies like this one can be prevented if doctors take a page from the veterinary playbook and become more vigilant about the disease.

Bat hanging upside down


You Can Still Contract Rabies in the United States

Although vaccination is critically important for preventing rabies in pets, being bitten by a pet or stray dog or cat is not the only way people contract the virus. Because any mammal can carry rabies, rabid wildlife also poses a risk. To help keep rabies at bay, avoid approaching or handling wild animals. Immediately contact your doctor or health officials if you are bitten by an animal or come into contact with an animal who is acting strangely.

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