The short answer is yes, people can still die from rabies. As the line between wilderness and areas inhabited by lots of people grows thinner, we all should be aware of rabies and know how to recognize it and prevent exposure. But before you get all panicky and lock yourself indoors, let’s backtrack a little bit.
Rabies is a virus, and a deadly one at that. When an infected animal bites a human it can pass on the infection through its saliva. In the United States, animals most likely to have and transmit rabies are bats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks. Dogs can become infected with rabies too, but in the U.S. that’s rare as dogs are required to be vaccinated against. But in some countries in Asia and Africa stray dogs, and there are lots of them can and do infect people.
Infected animals can also spread rabies to other animals, which can in turn infect humans. And although it’s rare, it is possible to get rabies if infected saliva just touches an open wound, your mouth, or your eyes.
It isn’t only wild animals such as bats, beavers, coyotes, foxes, monkeys, raccoons, skunks, and woodchucks that can spread rabies; domestic and farm animals can too – cats, cows, dogs, ferrets, goats, and horses.
Unfortunately once someone starts to show symptoms of rabies, it’s almost always fatal. That’s why if you’ve been bitten by an animal or you think an animal may have touched your skin and you have a scratch or any kind of wound, however minor, see a doctor IMMEDIATELY. Take note if you can of the kind of animal that bit or touched you. Was it wild or a pet? What was its behavior before it bit you? Did you provoke it? And were able to kill or capture it?
Some rabies symptoms are similar to flu – fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting, while others such as confusion, hyperactivity, difficulty swallowing, hallucinations, insomnia, salivating are not.
If you don’t have the offending animal for testing and there’s even a chance you’ve been exposed, you’ll have to undergo a series of four injections over a period of 14 days.
There’s not much you can do about wild animals except to stay away from them if at all possible. You can however take preventive measures by making sure your pet cats, dogs, and ferrets are vaccinated against rabies. Keep an eye on your pets and keep small ones like rabbits and guinea pigs, which can’t be vaccinated, in cages so they’re safe from wild animals. Report stray animals to your local animal control office, and if you live in an area where there are bats be sure to seal up cracks and spaces where they can enter your house.
Finally, if you’re planning to travel outside the U.S. where rabies is a problem, check with your doctor about getting a preventive vaccine.