Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nearly 100% Fatal

There is a disease that kills about 55,000 people each year worldwide. In all of history, once the disease became symptomatic (the patient displayed symptoms of the illness), only 6 are known to have survived. And only 1 person has ever survived when no treatment was administered. It's a disease that's about as close to being 100% fatal as you can possibly get.

What is it? Rabies — a viral infection that is very easily transmitted from rabid animals to humans. Worldwide, the most prevalent carrier of rabies is dogs, but in the United States, that honor goes to the raccoon in the mid-Atlantic and northeast states, and the skunk in the midwest. However, foxes, dogs, coyotes, wolves and bats are also popular transmitters of the disease. Rabies can be spread by domestic farm animals, groundhogs, weasels, bears, rodents, squirrels, and other animals. Elsewhere in the world, monkeys also transmit the virus. India has the highest rate of human rabies in the world, and the problem is caused by stray dogs.

The virus is normally transmitted through transfer of saliva during a bite incident, but it can also happen by other means. When the virus is introduced into a human, it enters the peripheral nervous system and travels by way of the nerves to the central nervous system. When it reaches the brain, it causes encephalitis. By the time the victim has symptoms, it's almost always too late for treatment. The only way to save a rabies victim is to inject vaccine soon after the bite has happened, and before symptoms show up.

Rabies infection in humans in the U.S. is fairly rare, due in part because of the active animal control and vaccination programs that battle against the disease in dogs and cats. But the incidence of human rabies in North America is now on the rise. And it would become much worse following a catastrophic disaster that causes a halt to the vaccination program and leaves animals roaming freely and interacting with infected wildlife. It is a scenario in which rabies could become a very real threat to the health of the human populace.

If you suspect that you have been exposed to the rabies virus, here's what to do:

  • Thoroughly wash the area of the wound for at least 5 minutes, using soap and water. This will help reduce the number of viral particles near the open wound. 
  • Apply a virucidal antiseptic such as providone-iodine, iodine tincture, aquaeous iodine solution or alcohol to the wound after washing with soap and water. 
  • Get to a doctor as quickly as possible and arrange for treatment with 1 dose of human rabies immunoglobulin and 4 doses of rabies vaccine each day for the next 14 days. 

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