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Rabies is an acute viral disease which attacks the brain and central nervous system of its victims. It is a zoonotic disease, which means that it is passed between animals and humans, and several animal species appear to act as reservoirs for rabies. Rabies is also fully preventable through vaccination, and if caught early, the condition can be treated. Once symptoms of rabies emerge, however, the virus is usually fatal; few patients have survived an episode of rabies, despite the best efforts of physicians.
The word “rabies” is taken directly from the Latin, and it means “rage,” a reference to the acute neurological symptoms of some cases end-stage rabies. The virus is classified as a Lyssavirus, in a group of viruses which tend to be rod or bullet shaped. Rabies is transmitted through saliva, and typically manifests in animals or humans who have been bitten by a victim of the disease. Saliva enters the skin through the bite, allowing the virus access to the body.
Once infected, rabies can remain latent for several weeks or even months. However, once the virus emerges, the patient quickly experiences an assortment of symptoms, including fever, depression, confusion, muscle spasms, extreme thirst, loss of muscle tone, salivation, and sensitivity to light and touch. Some victims become hydrophobic, meaning that they are afraid of water. As the virus progresses, it causes encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, and neurological symptoms get progressively worse.
Patients in the end stages of rabies may experience violent seizures and an altered level of consciousness. Aggressiveness is classically associated with rabies, although it does not appear in all cases. Most rabies treatment focuses on analgesia when symptoms become this severe, with the patient receiving pain relievers and muscle relaxants to ameliorate the seizures and associated pain.
Many animals can be vaccinated for rabies, and humans who are at risk of exposure may be vaccinated as well. If vaccinated humans are bitten, however, they still require follow-up vaccines to ensure that the virus will not take hold and multiply. Someone who has never been vaccinated can still fight off the disease with a vaccination series after a bite. After any type of animal bite or puncture wound, it is an excellent idea to flush the site of the wound and see a doctor to determine whether or not follow-up treatment is necessary.
Most of the world experiences rabies with varying levels of severity, although a few island nations have managed to remain rabies free. Importation of animals into these regions is strictly controlled, and many other countries have rigorous monitoring and vaccination programs to control the rabies problem.