Rabies, feared but not fully understood, dates as far back as the 10th century. Even today, deficient knowledge and beliefs about rabies exist. For example, most people still believe rabies can be contracted only through an infected animal's bite.

However, studies by Dr. Jerome Boscia of the Medical College of Pennsylvania reveal that infected animals may also spread the disease by licking around a person's mouth, eyes or open sores. Also, evidence shows that rabies may be contracted where there is a high concentration of rabid animals, as in a bat cave.Hikers, campers and vacationers place themselves in danger when they treat wild animals as "cute, cuddly toys." Caution children against any attempts at embracing or petting wildlife or domesticated animals that act strangely.

Most wild animals fear humans, but when infected by rabies, their behavior changes. They may become unafraid, prowl a campsite, or even attempt to attack a human.

During the final stages of the disease, a rabid animal will froth at the mouth, lunge and wildly attack anything in sight. Sudden changes in a domestic pet's routine should be viewed with caution and not be dismissed as trivial. Inoculate domestic pets on a regular basis. If you are bitten, seek medical attention, not only for the bite and the prevention of bacterial infection (dogs can carry 60 different bacteria in their mouths) but for an evaluation of possible rabies (caused by a virus) innoculations.

Rabies will not show immediate signs or symptoms. Symptoms may not occur up to a year after contact. Symptoms of rabies include headache, fever, appetite loss, anxiety and tingling sensation at the bite site. Nervousness increases and convulsions take place along with paralysis of throat and windpipe muscles and drooling. These symptoms signal the terminal stage of the disease when death is almost certain. Only two people have survived the latter stages of rabies.

Once bitten, the victim is usually given a series of anti-rabies injections. The original 23 such injections were painful and were given by injection into the abdomen. Only five injections are given now, in the arm, with less pain involved.

If bitten by an animal that "hits and runs," - always assume the animal is rabid and take the five vaccine injections and one anti-serum injection to remain on the safe side.

Wild carnivores account for about 90 of rabies cases and domestic pets represent the other 10 percent.

* First aid

Every attempt should be made to avoid destroying the animal. If it is killed, the head and brain should be protected from damage so that they can be examined for rabies. If killed, it is best to transport the animal intact to prevent exposure to potentially infected secretions or tissues. If necessary, the animal's remains can be refrigerated. Avoid freezing.

Bites should be washed vigorously with large amounts of soap and water. Always seek medical care.

Bites from domestic animals that are not warm blooded, such as birds (except bats!), snakes and other reptiles do not carry the danger of rabies. Nevertheless, these too, may become infected. Such bites should be washed well and watched for signs of infection.

* Alton Thygerson is a professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University.