2 July 2020

Rabies: What Do You Really Know?

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is part of a student blog series as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Disease Ecology Class that our own Shane M Hanlon is currently teaching. Find out more about the series and read all the posts here!    

Procyon lotor. Credit: Wikipedia

By Amanda Hodge   When people think of rabies, they are most likely visualizing an aggressive animal foaming at the mouth and ready to viciously attack any living thing in sight, but is this image always the case? Just the thought of coming into contact with a rabid animal terrifies most people who often think of a horrific attack that leaves them infected with a potentially fatal disease that is only treatable with 20 painful shots to the stomach. Often associated with aggression and violence, the contraction and treatment of rabies is widely misunderstood and can cause people to unknowingly wander into dangerous situations. In the past, a bite from a rabid animal was almost always a sentence to a gruesome, violent death. This is a stark contrast to modern times, in which four simple shots into an infected person’s arm (not stomach) prevent the virus from causing a deadly infection, as long as the shots are administered soon enough after the contraction of rabies. Although this treatment almost completely eliminated deaths from rabies in the United States, people’s misconceptions about rabies often cause them to react poorly when confronted with wild animals. Rabies is not always as obvious as a raccoon with a frothing mouth and wild eyes. The idea that rabies always causes aggressive behavior in an animal can sometimes prevent people from seeing a doctor and receiving necessary treatment. In many cases, rabid animals act friendly towards humans or may appear drunk which leads people to think interacting with the animal is safe. Most people are unaware that this lack of fear towards people is indicative of rabies and may come into contact with the animal’s saliva without thinking to visit a doctor. In addition, any mammal is able to contract and transmit rabies. People often believe rabies is most often contracted from dogs and raccoons, but in reality the majority of people in the United States that have come into contact with rabies were infected by a bite from a bat. Incorrect ideas of the scope of animals that can transmit rabies causes people to drop their guard and make themselves vulnerable to infection. In some cases, baby animals are even infected with this fatal virus. Transfixed by the cuteness of an abandoned baby fox or groundhog, someone might reach out to pick up the animal or even play with it, unaware of any potential danger. Unfortunately, any contact with this animal’s saliva can cause the transmission of the rabies virus to an unknowing human, causing a fatal infection. Despite the danger the rabies virus presents, transmission can be prevented by appropriate and cautious behavior around animals. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7152084/