Recently, I read that there were cases of animals having rabies in our own country. There were even two children who succumbed to it. When I was growing up as a child, my mother used to tell me that if a dog bites me, there is a possibility of me getting rabies. But I rarely hear about rabies today, until this recent incident. Is rabies rare?

Rabies is fairly rare today in advanced countries, but you still hear about a lot of cases in rural populations.

Rabies is present in all continents except Antarctica. Most humans infected by it are in Africa and Asia.

Rabies is not that rare as the virus is prevalent in animals. However, the rabies vaccine has prevented deaths from occurring to those infected by it. Hence, you don’t hear that much about people actually contracting it.

Every year, more than 15 million people receive a rabies vaccination after being bitten by a dog or wild animal.

This vaccination has saved millions and millions of lives.

Of course, there are many people living in rural or remote areas who have no access to this vaccine. If these people are bitten, they may contract rabies and die.

Rabies usually affects children between the ages of five and 14. Without the vaccine, it is almost always fatal.

Wait. So rabies is an infectious disease?

Yes. It is an RNA type virus.

It is transmitted to humans through the saliva of animals.

Most of the time, humans contract the virus after being bitten by a domestic pet, usually a dog. Beware of contracting it from wild dogs.

It can also spread to humans through scratches.

It can also be spread from other familiar pets, such as cats, ferrets, or even farm animals like goats, horses, cows and sheep.

In some cases, humans get it from being bitten by other wild animals, like monkeys, bats, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, foxes, etc.

There is also another way of contracting rabies. If an infected domestic or wild animal were to lick an open wound that you might possibly have, or a mucus membrane such as your eye or mouth, the virus can also be transmitted.

So be careful of having animals that you don’t know lick you.

How will I know if I have rabies?

If you have been bitten by any animal, including your own dog, or exposed to any animal suspected of having rabies (like a rabid wild dog), it is better to err on the safe side and seek medical attention immediately.

If you have a small child and you are not sure if he or she has been bitten, just go to a doctor to be on the safe side.

Even if you are not sure if you are bitten, especially when you are asleep during camping or such, and you find teeth marks the next morning – also seek medical attention.

In rabies, it is better to be safe than sorry because it is a fatal disease.

The first symptoms and signs of rabies are very similar to having the flu, and may last for days. They include:

• Fever

• Headache

• Nausea

• Vomiting

Later on, you may suffer anxiety, confusion, hyperactivity and difficulty swallowing. A lot of people associate foaming at the mouth with rabies, and they are right. This is because of excessive saliva being produced.

You may also have a fear of water, because of the excessive salivation. This is called hydrophobia.

At even later stages, there can be hallucinations, insomnia, and even partial paralysis as more and more of your brain is infected by the virus.

Why is rabies fatal?

Once you are infected, there is no effective treatment. Rabies is caused by a virus, and viruses are notoriously difficult to treat. Very, very few people can survive rabies.

It is far better to prevent it.

You mentioned a vaccine?

Yes. It is a rabies shot.

If the doctor decides that you have indeed been bitten by an animal and you need rabies prevention, he or she will give you a series of shots to prevent the virus from multiplying and actually infecting you.

You will receive four injections over a period of 14 days.

If you can find the animal that bit you, that animal can also be observed for rabies. If the animal shows no signs of rabies after 10 days, then it is safe to say that it doesn’t carry the rabies virus.

Unfortunately, to test an animal for the rabies virus, you will have to kill it and test its brain. So it’s not wise to do that for pets.


Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.