What is Rabies and Why is it Important?
Rabies is a widespread infection of warm-blooded animals. It is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. Once the symptoms of rabies develop, it is 100% fatal (there is no cure once the patient develops the symptoms of rabies). Rabid raccoons have recently been found in the City of Vineland.
What Animals can Transmit Rabies?
In North America rabies occurs primarily in skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats. In some areas these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the U.S., cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. As a general rule, rabies is rare in small rodents (beavers, chipmunks and squirrels, rats and mice, muskrats, hamsters, gerbils, porcupines and guinea pigs). Rabies is also rare in rabbits. In the mid-atlantic states (including NJ), where rabies is increasing in raccoons, woodchucks (also known as groundhog) can be rabid.
How is Rabies Spread?
Rabies virus enters the body through a cut or scratch or through mucous membranes (such as the lining of the mouth and eyes). From there it travels to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in many different organs. The salivary glands are the organs most important in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal the rabies virus is transmitted in the infected animals' saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are dangerous because animals lick their claws. Saliva applied to a mucous membrane such as the lining of an eyelid can also be dangerous. Bats can also transmit rabies. Bat excreta contain enough rabies virus that people who enter bat infested caves can "catch" rabies by breathing in the aerosols created by bats. Two such caves have been reported in Texas. There are no known caves in N.J. that have conditions similar to the cave in Texas where the 2 individuals developed rabies.
Signs and Symptoms of Rabies?
The incubation period (period from exposure to rabies virus to onset of illness) in humans range from 5 days to more than 1 year, with 2 months being the average incubation period. First there is a period of vague symptoms lasting from 2-10 days. The patient may have a fever, headache, malaise (not feeling well), decreased appetite and vomiting. There may also be pain, itching or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound. In the next stage, patients often develop difficulty swallowing (hence the term "foaming at the mouth" due to inability to swallow their saliva). Even the sight of water may terrify the patient (hence the term hydrophobic or fear of water). Some patients become agitated and disoriented, while others become paralyzed. Patients either die during this stage of the illness or go into a coma and die from further complications.
There is no known, effective treatment for rabies once the symptoms of the illness have developed. After individual consideration, in certain cases, a decision may be made to administer rabies vaccine to prevent the development of rabies.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Rabies?
Since there is no treatment for rabies, the major emphasis is on preventing it. Below is a list of some ways of limiting the spread of rabies: