10 things to know about rabies

Flying Bat in Forest Photo by Bernd Wolter/Shutterstock

Things often seem scary when we don’t know much about them. For just this reason, World Rabies Day was created to raise awareness about the disease and to promote its eradication. Here are some things to know about rabies.

Rabies is rare in Canada

There are relatively few recorded cases of rabies in wildlife occurring in Canada each year. Ontario often has the most, with 68 confirmed cases out of 1,159 samples submitted so far in 2018, about half the total for the entire country. The vast majority of human rabies cases, roughly 95 per cent, occur in Asia and Africa. According to WHO, about 59,000 rabies-related deaths occur each year worldwide. Since reporting began in Canada in 1924, only 25 deaths have been recorded.

Canada has excellent rabies control

Rabies has been kept under control in Canada because of the focussed public health strategy. Programs are in place for the vaccination of livestock and pets; government agencies monitor and vaccinate wildlife against the spread of the disease; and public education about the virus is widespread.

Raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes are the most common carriers in Canada

Canada, being such a large country with many different terrains, has a large variety of mammals noted for exhibiting the disease. In recent years, racoons have been the most common carriers in the East; foxes in the North; skunks in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario; and bats just about everywhere.

Any mammal can carry rabies

Although it is more common for specific animals to be infected in Canada, any mammal—from deer to coyotes to weasels—can be a carrier. Dogs are reported to be the number one cause of rabies spreading worldwide. Since any mammal can carry the virus, beware of any wildlife you see acting in an aggressive or odd manner, and do not touch the carcasses of dead animals, even if they are frozen.

One rabies symptom is hydrophobia

Historically rabies was called hydrophobia because it produces the symptom of being unable to swallow liquids. It may not be an actual “fear” of water, but patients often show distress and anxiety about drinking, and contractions of neck muscles make trying to swallow liquids difficult.

Rabies is spread through saliva

The reason rabies is most commonly spread through bites is because it is transmitted through the salivary glands. Rabies often causes violent and unexpected behaviour in the host animal, causing it to attack other animals, which leads to transmission. Rabies can also be transmitted if infected saliva comes in contact with an open wound or the mouth, nose, or eyes of another mammal. The disease is very rarely transferred from human to human.

There are two different types of rabies

The more common form of the disease is known as furious rabies, which induces uncontrolled spasms, high fever, agitation, aggressiveness, and hydrophobia. The less common form is known as paralytic or dumb rabies and accounts for about 20 per cent of human rabies cases. Dumb rabies is known to cause a slowly spreading muscle weakness and paralysis, leading to respiratory problems and, eventually, a coma.

Rabies is easy to prevent

The old adage “knowledge is power” really is the case when preventing rabies. Knowing the signs of animals that have the virus is paramount to prevention, as well as closely monitoring children who may be around animals. If you have pets (or keep livestock), you must vaccinate them and keep their immunization up to date. If you are travelling to a high-risk area, you should get vaccinated before leaving. Personal immunization is also important if you work with wildlife.

Rabies can be effectively treated, but not cured

If you suspect you’ve been infected with rabies, you need to: thoroughly wash out the spot of infection; leave the wound uncovered; discard clothing worn at the time of infection; and go to the hospital or see your doctor as soon as possible. A post-exposure vaccine is administered in five doses over a period of up to 14 to 28 days. Rabies can be treated before clinical symptoms show with a high degree of effectiveness, but there is no cure for rabies once symptoms appear.

Humanity has been studying rabies for thousands of years

Rabies has been noted throughout history at least since the time of the Greek philosophers Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 BC), who apparently first described the disease, and Aristotle (374–322 BC), who warned against bites from rabid dogs. There are many old woodcuts and stories from the Middle Ages showing the dangers of rabid dogs. By the late 1700s, physicians started to consider it contagious. Even though the first vaccine was discovered in the 1880s by the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, to this day the age-old illness continues to pester humanity and our animal companions.


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