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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

For Consumers

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Precautions to Prevent Rabies

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One person dies from rabies every 10 minutes somewhere in the world. The brain-attacking virus kills more than 55,000 people each year, mostly in Africa and Asia, according to the Alliance for Rabies Control.

But only one or two people each year die from rabies in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. This low number is due in part to the availability of lifesaving, FDA-approved vaccines designed specifically for use in people exposed to rabies. Only one person in the United States is known to have recovered from rabies without receiving a rabies vaccination.

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Human Rabies Vaccines

Anti-rabies vaccines are given to as many as 40,000 people in the United States each year after potential exposure to the rabies virus. The vaccine, as part of rabies treatment, is nearly 100% successful, if received in time.

"The sooner treatment is begun after exposure, the better," says Robin Levis, Ph.D., Associate Director for Regulatory Policy in FDA's Office of Vaccines Research and Review/Division of Viral Products.

A person may be exposed to rabies when the virus enters the body through the saliva of an infected animal, usually by a bite. Rabies can also be transmitted if infected saliva gets into an open wound. Several cases of rabies have been the result of unapparent exposure to the virus from bats.

The treatment for rabies after exposure consists of one injection of proteins that fight the infection (anti-rabies immune globulin) and five injections of rabies vaccine over a 28-day period. The vaccine works by stimulating a person's immune system to produce antibodies that neutralize the virus.

Older rabies vaccines required painful, daily injections in the abdomen for up to three weeks, and they could produce severe side effects, says Levis. Today's rabies vaccines require fewer injections, are given in the arm, and have few serious side effects.

People who are considered at high risk for exposure to rabies, such as veterinarians, wildlife officers, animal handlers, and some laboratory workers, may get rabies vaccines to help protect them before they are exposed to the virus.

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Prevention Tips

It's not always easy to recognize a rabid animal. Depending on the type of rabies an animal has, it may be aggressive and vicious, or timid and shy. Wild animals may appear abnormally tame. Animals in the early stage of rabies may not show any signs, but can still infect you if they bite you.

  • Enjoy wildlife from a distance. Of the 6,400 animal cases of rabies reported to CDC in 2005, more than 90% were in wild animals, mostly raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Today, bites from bats are the main cause of rabies in humans in the United States.
  • Do not approach a stray animal—report it to your local animal control agency. The most common reason people get post-exposure vaccines is that they're bitten by a domestic animal that isn't available for testing. "They may see a cute dog or cat on the street that they try to pet, and it bites them and runs off," says Suzanne Jenkins, V.M.D., M.P.H., Veterinary Epidemiology Consultant for the Virginia Department of Health.
  • Keep rabies vaccinations up to date for all cats, dogs, and ferrets. Vaccinations help prevent pets from getting rabies from wild animals, and then transmitting it to people. Even indoor pets should have rabies vaccinations, says Jenkins, recalling a case in which a woman found her unvaccinated indoor cat with a bat in its mouth. The bat escaped, but was assumed to have rabies, making for the tough decision of either euthanizing the cat or isolating it for six months. Many communities sponsor low-cost rabies vaccination clinics for pets. Check with your local animal control agency.
  • Supervise your pets so they do not come in contact with wild animals. If your pet is bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary assistance immediately, even if the pet has been vaccinated against rabies.
  • Keep lids on garbage cans and don't leave pet food outside overnight.
  • If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, immediately wash the wound with soap and water for at least five minutes and get medical help at once. Also, report the bite to your local health department.
  • Talk to a health care provider, travel clinic, or health department about the risk of exposure to rabies before traveling abroad. A pre-exposure vaccine may be suggested when traveling to some areas. Avoid direct contact with wild animals. Be especially careful around dogs in developing countries. Feral dogs in the developing world are the largest source of animal bites leading to rabies shots worldwide.

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This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

Date Posted: October 22, 2007