Last month, public health officials in Seattle warned that a bat found in a local park (Green Lake Park) tested positive for rabies. Someone caught the bat after it was moved by four teenagers. All of these people who had contact with the bat are at risk of contracting rabies. (A second rabid bat was found five days later a few miles from the location of the first rabid bat.)
Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that attacks cells of the nervous system. Rabies is spread through the saliva of an infected animal. People and other animals can get rabies if they are bitten or scratched by an infected animal. Bats and raccoons often carry rabies, but dogs, cats, skunks, foxes, wolves and coyotes can also be infected. After the rabies virus enters the body, it is picked up by peripheral nerves and transported to the brain and spinal cord. The virus multiplies in nerve cells and then spreads to other parts of the body.
Symptoms of rabies usually start within two to eight weeks after a person is bitten. However, in rare cases, it may take more than a year for symptoms to develop. The first signs of rabies may look similar to the flu: fever, headache, nausea, depression, sore throat, stiff muscles, loss of appetite. The part of the body that was bitten or scratch may be painful or itch. After these first symptoms, more serious problems follow: anxiety, convulsions, paralysis, breathing difficulties, coma.
When rabies attacks the central nervous system, it causes encephalitis (brain swelling) and inflammation around brain blood vessels. If rabies goes untreated, it is almost always fatal and there is no cure.
The best way to prevent rabies is to stay away from wild animals and stray dogs and cats. Also, never touch, pet or feed these animals. If someone is bitten or scratched by a wild or stray animal, the wound should be washed with soap and water immediately. A doctor should then be seen to determine the best course of action that might include a series of injections to prevent rabies. If the animal can be quarantined safely, it will be observed for signs of rabies.
The post was published originally in the Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter, September 1, 2017.