Rabies

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Rabies facts

  • About 60,000 people die every year of rabies, mostly in Asia and Africa.
  • In the U.S., one to three people die from rabies each year.
  • Animal vaccinations and postexposure prophylaxis protocols have nearly eradicated rabies in the U.S.
  • Every year more than 15 million people worldwide receive postexposure vaccination to prevent rabies.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral illness spread via the saliva of an infected animal. This occurs usually through biting a human or another animal. Transmission can also occur through saliva touching an open wound or touching mucous membranes.

What causes rabies?

Rabies is caused by the rabies virus. The virus infects the brain and ultimately leads to death. After being bitten by a rabid animal, the virus is deposited in the muscle and subcutaneous tissue. For most of the incubation period (which is usually one to three months), the virus stays close to the exposure site. The virus then travels via peripheral nerves to the brain and from there, again via peripheral nerves, to nearly all parts of the body.

Any mammal can spread rabies. In the United States, rabies is most often transmitted via the saliva of bats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. In the developing world, stray dogs are the most likely animal to transmit rabies. The virus has also been found in cows, cats, ferrets, and horses.

The local health department will usually have information on which animals in the area have been found to carry the rabies virus.

What are risk factors for rabies?

Any activity that brings someone in contact with possible rabid animals, such as traveling in an area where rabies is more common (Africa and Southeast Asia) as well as outdoor activities near bats and other possible rabid animals, all increase one's risk of getting infected with rabies.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/26/2014

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Rabies Vaccine

Do You Need Vaccinations Before Traveling Abroad?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

International travelers should make sure that these vaccinations are up to date and that no boosters are required, since many conditions which are rare in the U.S. due to immunity in the general population may be more common in other countries.

"Recommended" vaccinations are given to protect travelers from illnesses that occur routinely in other parts of the world. Doctors determine which vaccines are recommended for international travel on an individual basis, taking into consideration your destination, whether you will be spending time in rural areas, the season of the year you are traveling, your age, your overall health status, and your immunization history.

Some examples of vaccines that may be recommended for international travelers (remember you may need more, fewer, or different vaccinations, depending on your individual circumstances) include the following:

  • Hepatitis A: This condition is spread by person-to-person contact, through contaminated water, shellfish harvested in contaminated water, or other food products contaminated during preparation or handling. Hepatitis A may be contracted where sanitation conditions may be lacking.

  • Rabies: Rabies virus is endemic in dogs in many countries throughout the world, including, but not limited to, parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

  • Typhoid fever: This condition may be contracted in many areas of the world through contaminated drinking water or food or by consuming food or beverages that have been handled by an infected person.