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Rabies kills a staggering 30,000 people annually in India. Over the years stray dogs have become a big nuisance in our cities. Municipal authorities find themselves helpless in the wake of restraining court orders obtained by the canine lovers, which prevent capturing and killing of stray dogs.
How Rabies is transmitted
Rabies is a fatal viral infection of the central nervous system. Pets especially dogs are the usual carriers of the rabies virus. Rabbits, squirrels, cats, bats, mice may also be infected. It is usually transmitted by bites from infected animals but minor scratches and even licks, especially if there is a cut or wound in the skin, can lead to development of rabies.
How can you identify a rabid animal
An important indicator is a sudden change of behaviour, like drooling, unprovoked aggression, biting, aimless running, refusal to eat and difficulty in breathing. However, some infected animals may become paralyzed or die without showing typical signs of illness.
Any dog that bites a person should be observed for fourteen days. If the dog remains healthy for a fortnight, it can be assumed that it is rabies free. But if the animal shows signs of the illness, it should be humanely put down.
How rabies develops
When an infected animal bites a person, the rabies virus enters the local nerve endings at the site of the wound. It then travels along the nerves to brain, where it may incubate for up to three months. During this phase the victim is apparently alright. By the time symptoms develop it’s always too late to prevent death.
At the end of the incubation period the virus multiplies rapidly spreading to the brain and throughout the body. Initially there may be fever, headache, nausea and a persistent cough. Later on in the acute neurological stage, patient becomes nervous, agitated, restless and irritable. There is excessive production of saliva. As the virus replicates in the brain, the victim experiences eye problems such as dilated pupils, weakness of the facial muscles and hoarseness of voice. In 15-20 percent cases, there is hydrophobia – a fear of water. As soon as water is given there are strong, painful spasms of the throat muscles which expel it. In more severe cases mere sight of water may be sufficient to provoke such spasms.
Finally, the virus overwhelms the central nervous system and the patient falls into a coma, becomes paralyzed and dies.
How to prevent Rabies
Wash the wound immediately with plenty of soap under running tap water and apply an antiseptic like Betadine. Some people apply chilly powder, ash or lime. This is ineffective and can be dangerous.
Once the wound has been cleaned, seek medical help immediately. Victims must be immunized as soon as possible, so that antibodies have time to develop and kill the virus before it reaches the brain. Once the virus reaches the brain, the antibodies are no longer effective.
There are four types of vaccines available for rabies. The one available free of cost at government hospitals in India is made from the brain tissue of infected sheep. The bitten person needs to take 10-14 injections of this vaccine in the stomach – a very painful procedure. This vaccine tends to produce side effects like itching, muscle aches or dizziness. In extremely rare cases, this vaccine has produced neuro-paralytic attacks in some patients.
The other three vaccines known as the chick embryo cell culture vaccine, the vero cell culture vaccine and the human diploid cell culture vaccine are costlier, but much safer and victims require no more than five shots. With these cell culture vaccines, three shots may be enough at times – on the day of the bite, day 3 and day 7 – if the dog is still alive and healthy after 10 days. Otherwise two more shots on day 14, day 30, and an optional booster shot on day 90 are necessary.
The vaccination must always start right away because once rabies sets in, it is always fatal.