Rabies

Introduction

Rabies is a very serious viral infection that targets the brain and nervous system. It is spread by animals to humans.Once the symptoms of rabies have developed, the condition is almost always fatal.

The symptoms of rabies include:

  • numbness at the bite site
  • high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.º4) or above
  • hydrophobia – an irrational fear of water
  • hallucinations – seeing or hearing things that are not real

See rabies - symptoms for more information.

How rabies is spread

Rabies is a zoonotic infection, which means it is passed to humans by animals.

If an infected animal bites or scratches a human, the rabies virus can spread to the brain through the nervous system.

Rabies can also be spread by an infected animal’s saliva coming in to contact with a cut or graze on a person’s skin. However, this is much less common.

Most mammals can carry the rabies virus, but the majority of cases result from being bitten by an infected dog.

How common is rabies?

There are an estimated 55,000 cases of rabies each year worldwide. Most cases occur in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia. Half of all rabies cases occur in India.

However, a small number of cases continue to be reported in developed countries, particularly in North America. Most of these cases are the result of a person being bitten by a wild animal rather than a dog.

As a result of strict UK quarantine laws when transporting animals, and more recently the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS), the UK has been rabies-free since the beginning of the 20th century, with the exception of a rabies-like virus in a single species of bat.

The last recorded rabies case in the UK was in Northern Ireland in 2008. A person was flown back for treatment after working for an animal charity in South Africa.

Vaccination

A number of vaccines can be used to prevent a rabies infection developing. Routine vaccination is usually only recommended if you are travelling to a part of the world that is known to have high levels of rabies, and your access to medical care is likely to be limited.

Most people going on a standard holiday (as opposed to trekking or living and working in rural areas) will not need a rabies vaccine. See rabies - prevention for more information.

Treating rabies

There are currently no effective treatments for rabies. Therefore the only effective option is to try to prevent the rabies virus spreading from the site of the bite to the brain and nervous system. This is done by cleaning out the wound and administering several doses of the rabies vaccine and a type of blood product known as immunoglobulin, which contains rabies-fighting antibodies. This is known as post-exposure prophylaxis.

If you are travelling in a part of the world that is known to have high levels of rabies and you are bitten by an animal, seek immediate medical attention so that you can receive post-exposure prophylaxis. See rabies - treatment for more information.

Outlook

Once the symptoms of rabies have begun, it almost always leads to death. Rabies has the highest death rate of any type of viral infection. To date, there has only been one reported case of person surviving a rabies infection.

Last updated: 26 July 2012

Continue to next section: Symptoms of rabies