Rabies is the oldest communicable disease of humans. The ancient Babylonians described rabies in dogs and its lethal consequences. The disease frequently causes concern when a person is bitten by an animal because with rare exceptions, rabies in humans is always fatal once symptoms appear.

It has been said that when a physician encounters a patient with rabies, the experience "leaves his mind a more indelible stamp of horror" than any other disease he will meet. Please note that not everyone who is exposed gets rabies - only 50 percent of susceptible people bitten by a rabid animal die of rabies.Rabies in wild animals is common, but thanks to vaccination is quite rare in domestic animals. It is a viral disease transmitted by the saliva of infected animals. The disease is found in all states except Hawaii and in many other countries. Between 1980 to 1996, 32 laboratory confirmed cases of human rabies were diagnosed in the United States.

How do you get it?

Rabies can be given to people and other animals if a rabid animal bites, scratches or licks an open wound. Although rabies in humans is rare in this country, more than 22,000 people still receive treatment to prevent it each year.

In most parts of the world, rabid dogs are still primarily responsible for transmitting rabies to humans. Wild foxes, raccoons, coyotes, skunks and bats are also common carriers of infection. Rodents are rarely infected. Airborn transmission of rabies virus may occur in a few rare cases from breathing air of a bat-infested cave.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms usually start two to eight weeks after exposure to a rabid animal. Rarely, it can take as few as five days or more than a year for symptoms to appear.

Aside from those reporting being bitten by a rabid animal, most victims diagnosed before death show hydrophobia (reluctance to drink) as well as limb pain, paralysis, excessive salivation and agitation.

How can you avoid it?

Since contact with wild animals is the main way humans and their pets get exposed to rabies, avoid any direct contact with wild animals - especially raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. Also, make sure pets are vaccinated against rabies.

In North America, vaccination has led to almost complete control of rabies in canines. In France and Belgium, spreading bait laced with vaccine over the countryside has greatly decreased, and possibly eliminated, rabies in wild foxes.

Control of rabies in bats remains a problem. Any person bitten or scratched by a bat, who came into contact with a dead or dying bat, was sleeping in a room found to contain a bat or where a bat is found close to an unattended child needs treatment.

Veterinarians, animal laboratory workers, people planning to spend more than 30 days in countries where rabies in dogs is widespread or explorers of bat caves should consider getting vaccinated. A booster is needed every two years.

What should be done if bitten?

Cleanse bites or wounds with lots of soap and water. Do this by vigorous scrubbing for 15 minutes. Afterward, flush the wound with water from a faucet. If rabies is suspected, promptly seek the advice of a physician, the Department of Health or the local animal control officer.

A substance called rabies immune globulin (RIG) can be given to neutralize the virus as the site of the wound. The RIG is then followed by a series of rabies vaccine shots (usually five shots), given over 28 days. A new rabies vaccine was released in 1997 for both pre-exposure and post-exposure use in humans.

What if you aren't treated?

If left untreated, rabies is almost always fatal. When rabies is suspected, getting immediate protective treatment can be effective in preventing disease.

Can you tell if an animal is rabid?

Although it is not possible to determine that an animal is not infected with rabies by simple observation, signs in an animal which should lead you to suspect that it may be rabid are:

- Nervousness

- Aggressiveness

- Excessive drooling and foaming at the mouth, or

Abnormal behavior such as:

- Wild animals losing their fear of human beings, or

- Animals normally active at night being seen in the daytime.