Dogs are called “man’s best friend” but did you know that dogs around the world are infecting humans with a deadly virus? As Halloween draws near, let’s take a closer look at one of the dark sides of our furry friends.
This virus present on every continent except Antarctica and kills more people per year than the Ebola virus has in all of its recorded history. Not only that, this virus is far more deadly than any strain of Ebola yet discovered. Once symptoms appear, death occurs in almost 100% of patients. The only treatment for symptomatic patients that has any measure of success is putting the patient into a coma, but only 15% of patients survive even with this treatment. This virus is spread by dogs in 99% of cases, coming from one of humanity’s most trusted allies.
This disease may sound frightening, and it is. However, that doesn’t mean you should be worried. This disease is actually very well-controlled in the United States and other developed countries. This disease is rabies.
Rigorous laws regarding the vaccination of pets have kept rabies cases low in the United States. However, wild animals can still pass rabies to a human. Rabies can infect almost every type of mammal, from foxes to horses. In the United States, rabies is most common in raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. Rabid bats are especially prevalent and have been found in every state except Hawaii and Alaska.
If you are ever bitten by a wild animal, or a pet that you don’t know the vaccination status of, it’s extremely important that you see a doctor. If you receive the rabies vaccine within two weeks of being bitten then your immune system will have enough time to build up defenses before the virus multiplies in your body. By the time a human or animal shows symptoms of rabies, it’s too late and death is almost a certainty.
Humans and animals go through a similar series of symptoms when they contract rabies. The first signs are mild, a tingling or itching near the site of bite. Animals may bite at the site, humans may scratch. Fatigue, muscle ache, and fever come next. Before long, the symptoms grow stronger. Humans and animals may become hydrophobic, a term meaning “to fear water.” Swallowing becomes difficult and painful, and some humans become outright afraid of water. A combination of dehydration and the virus create confusion, and in many patients, aggression and agitation.
The next set of symptoms is called the “furious stage” of rabies. Humans may begin behaving erratically, trying to escape or attack. Animals become very dangerous, losing their fear of natural enemies and often aggressively attacking anyone or anything that gets close. The animal may be having difficulty swallowing saliva at this point, which can lead to the classic rabies image of a foaming and aggressive animal. Rabies is spread through saliva, so the shutdown of the swallowing reflex is very beneficial for the virus.
The final stage of rabies is the paralytic stage. Some humans and animals never experience the furious stage and skip straight to the paralytic stage. Others become paralyzed after the furious stage. In the paralysis phase, the muscles of the body stop working. The person or animal will have difficulty breathing, and the heart may spasm. Inevitably, this stage will end in death.
As many as 60,000 people per year die from rabies, a tragic number considering that early treatment with the vaccine is 100% successful in preventing the disease. These deaths are almost entirely in the developing areas of Asia and Africa where medical treatment is less available.
For this Halloween and beyond, be mindful of bats and other furry creatures you may see. If they are acting strangely, keep your distance and call an animal control officer. If you are bitten, see a doctor over the next few days. Finally, always keep your animals vaccinated to keep them from transforming into a monster far more terrifying than any Halloween scare.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow
For more information on rabies, see the World Health Organization.