Rabies – What You Need to Know

Jun 12, 2020

Several years ago, we found a bat in our house in the early summer.  I trapped it and threw it out into the yard; and it disappeared after about a half hour.  After thinking about it, I realized that the bat had been in the house for several days.  Later that day, I noticed strange tiny scratches on my shoulder.  Since we sleep with all of the doors inside the house open to help air circulation, I had to consider that these scratches might be bat bites.  With a terrible feeling in my stomach, I called the doctor immediately.

As a precaution, my daughter and I ended up having a series of rabies vaccines over several weeks.  I had heard awful things about rabies vaccines and how painful they are.  I remembered an old M*A*S*H TV episode where the beloved character Radar had to have rabies treatment and was hospitalized and delirious.  I was, quite honestly, terrified the first day we walked into the hospital for our first shots.

The inoculations were not that bad. The first day was the worse as they gave us several injections—based on body weight.  But, it was like getting six flu shots.  I would rather go out for ice cream than have these shots.  But, it really wasn’t bad.  We returned a week later for one shot; then two weeks later, another shot; four weeks later, another shot; and eight weeks later, the last shot. 

I thought that maybe we had been overly cautious in having the rabies series, but a few months later, there was a news article about a man in Massachusetts who died of rabies from a probable bat bite.  I’m glad we took care of it.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), rabies is a virus that infects wildlife, especially bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. It can spread to people and pets when they are bitten or scratched, causing fever, agitation and death. Rabies is 100% preventable with post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) that includes rabies vaccine and medications to fight infection, as long as people get PEP before symptoms start. Understanding the risk of rabies and knowing what to do after contact with wildlife can save lives.

Every ten minutes, someone in the U.S. is treated for possible exposure to rabies. About 55,000 Americans get PEP each year to prevent rabies infection after being bitten or scratched by an infected or suspected infected animal. Worldwide, more than 59,000 people die of rabies each year because they cannot get the care they need– that’s one person dying of rabies roughly every nine minutes.

In order to avoid contracting rabies, everyone can:

  • Leave all wildlife alone.
  • Wash animal bites or scratches immediately with soap and water.
  • If you are bitten, scratched or unsure, talk to a healthcare provider immediately about whether you need PEP.
  • Vaccinate your pets to protect them and your family.
  • If you find injured wildlife, don’t touch it; contact local authorities for assistance.

The best way to avoid rabies is to stay away from wildlife. Whether in the US or abroad, seeing a healthcare provider quickly after an animal bite or scratch can ensure people get PEP, if needed. 

For more information on rabies, prevention, and treatment, visit https://www.who.int/health-topics/rabies or https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/rabies/.