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Rabies Overview

Rabies is a disease humans may get from being bitten by an animal infected with the rabies virus. Rabies has been recognized for over 4,000 years. Yet, despite great advances in diagnosing and preventing it, today rabies is almost always deadly in humans who contract it and do not receive treatment.

Rabies can be totally prevented with appropriate treatment. You must recognize the exposure and promptly get appropriate medical care before you develop the symptoms of rabies.

  • While human rabies is quite rare in the United States, in some areas of the world (for example, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America), it is much more common. Worldwide, the majority of human rabies cases involve bites from rabid dogs, although this is extremely rare in the U.S., where wild animals such as raccoons and bats are the primary source of exposure.
  • The incidence of rabies in people parallels the incidence in the animal kingdom. The great strides that have been made in controlling the disease in animals in the United States and in other developed countries is directly responsible for the decline in human rabies in developed countries. The number of human deaths from rabies in the U.S. averages one or two cases per year, and deaths almost always occur when the affected person has delayed or failed to receive treatment.
    • Some regions of the country have more cases of rabies than others do.
    • Wild animals, rather than domestic animals, accounted for most reported cases of rabies in 2010.
  • Animals that carry rabies: Raccoons are the most common wild animals infected with rabies in the United States. Skunks, foxes, bats, and coyotes are the other most frequently affected.
    • Bats are the most common animals responsible for the transmission of human rabies in the United States, accounting for more than half of human cases since 1980 and 74% since 1990. Rabid bats have been reported in all states except Hawaii.
    • Cats are the most common domestic animals with rabies in the United States. Dogs are the most common domestic rabid animals worldwide.
    • Almost any wild or domestic animal can potentially get rabies, but it is very rare in small rodents (rats, squirrels, chipmunks) and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares). Large rodents (beavers, woodchucks/groundhogs) have been found to have rabies in some areas of the United States.
    • Fish, reptiles, and birds are not known to carry the rabies virus.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/25/2015
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