Most people know that you can get rabies from a dog bite. But what about it is so scary and why are we so fearful about getting rabies? Are there other ways you can get the infection?
Rabies is a fatal viral infection that damages the brain and spinal cord. There are two types in South Africa, one affecting dogs (canid – which is vaccine preventable) while another affects mongooses (viverid). But these are not the only animals affected. Humans get infected through contact with saliva or tissue of infected animals, but it cannot penetrate intact skin. However, licks on broken skin, contact with the inside of the lips or the eyes are problematic, as well as bites and scratches.
How does a rabid animal behave?
Firstly, their behavior is abnormal, especially dogs tend to be aggressive. The excess saliva is because they can't swallow. Conversely, wild animals may appear tame as they lose their fear of humans. Livestock may behave like their throats are obstructing.
Bats can have rabies even if they are fruit eating or insectivorous, so spelunkers beware! Don't handle any bats you find inside those caves. Cats, dogs, mongooses, cattle and other livestock, black backed jackals and bat-eared foxes and just about any wild mammal, potentially could get infected with rabies.
Veterinarians, lab workers, conservation officers and animal rescuers are at an occupational risk. Children are also at risk because they approach animals indiscriminately. People who are travelling in areas where medical facilities are sparse and where rabies occurs endemically in animal populations or where dog vaccinations rates are low, could also be at risk, especially if you run, hike, cycle or camp in these regions. Have you ever been chased by a dog on your bicycle?
Are there regional risks within our South African borders?
Yes, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Free State and Limpopo have had more domestic dog cases. Wild animal related cases occur in the Western, Central and Northern parts of SA. Cats can be a problem in the Western Cape. Fortunately, bite rates are low and vaccination campaigns have led to the average per annum human infection rate of being less than 10 people. Still, these are entirely preventable deaths!
There is no treatment for rabies, and most people infected will die. Vaccinate yourself, especially if you are at occupational, hobby or exercise-related risk. Make sure your dogs and cats have been vaccinated.
What happens if I get bitten?
If you get bitten or scratched by an abnormally behaving animal (or any bat), wash the site with soap and water for 15 minutes and seek medical help. The health care worker will do a risk assessment to decide if you need shots known as post exposure prophylaxis. It's a lot of injections around the site of the bite followed by a series of injections over the next few days.
What if I'm vaccinated? Am I safe?
If it's a high-risk exposure, you will still need the shots, but it will be far less injections and it gives you time to seek help. Imagine you are somewhere in another African country; you are potentially days away from healthcare workers. This buys you time to get to a city and get evacuated back to South Africa or get local treatment if it's available. Time is critical in reducing the risk of development of the infection. All these shots cost a fair amount so once again, the simple vaccination in the first place saves a lot of money.
This World Rabies Day commit to checking the vaccination status of animals, educate children on how to behave with strange animals and get vaccinated yourself if you are at risk.