Updated October 3, 2019
Rabies is a scary disease. Once affected animals (humans included) start showing signs of disease, it is invariably fatal. But all of that might be changing, thanks to some cunning researchers.
How rabies is transmitted
Before we get to the good news, let’s take a minute to review the basics of rabies. Rabies is a virus that is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals (most often through bite wounds). Rabies is maintained in the wildlife population worldwide, and all mammals are susceptible to its effects (though some are more resistant to infection than others).
Once the virus enters the body through a bite wound or other means, it travels along peripheral nerves until it reaches the spinal cord and the brain, where it replicates and spreads. The incubation period varies widely—anywhere between three weeks to six months or a year can pass between initial infection and the start of clinical signs.
Signs + symptoms
Clinical signs include behavior changes and paralysis. Signs start out mild and behavioral in nature. Wild animals may lose their fear of humans, or nocturnal animals may be seen in broad daylight. From there, signs akin to madness set in—overreaction to sounds and light, intense drooling or foaming at the mouth and aggression are common. These signs may last just a single day or may stretch to a week in duration. Next comes the paralytic stage of the disease, when progressive paralysis leads to coma and death.
When humans are bitten by a potentially infected animal, prophylactic post exposure treatment can be started, but once clinical signs are seen, rabies is rapidly fatal.
Treatment and prevention
However, this death sentence may be a thing of the past for four- and two-legged animals! Infectious disease researchers at my alma mater, The University of Georgia (go Dawgs!) have just published their findings in Journal of Virology. They have developed a new vaccine that rescued 50% of an exposed population of adult mice, even after the onset of clinical signs. This is great news!
The researchers hope to improve on those statistics and then translate their work into human medicine, offering a ray of hope in the field of rabies treatment worldwide, both for humans and animals.
Of course, prevention is still the best medicine. Rabies vaccines are highly effective and are mandated by state law. But it certainly is nice to be able to hope that someday soon, unvaccinated pets (and humans) still stand a chance against this deadly virus.
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