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Updated 21 March 2013

13 rabies facts

Rabies is a truly frightening, possibly fatal, disease. Most people who are infected by rabies, are bitten by infected domestic cats or dogs. Immediate treatment is essential.

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Here are some facts everyone should know:
  • Human rabies occurs in South Africa. The disease occurs in wild and domestic mammals and occasionally in humans.
  • Dog or cat rabies occurs in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Lesotho, and this is also where most human cases occur.
  • About 600-700  cases of animal rabies (dogs, cats, cattle, yellow mongoose) and 20-30 diagnosed cases of human rabies occur each year in South Africa.
  • Symptoms of rabies in a human include abnormal behaviour, fever, anxiety, severe muscle spasms and an inability to swallow.
  • Rabies is always fatal once symptoms appear. That is why treatment after exposure is essential. Deaths from rabies in South Africa are unnecessary, and are caused by ignorance of the disease on the part of the public and health care professionals, or lack of access to health care.
  • Human rabies can almost always be prevented, even after exposure. Awareness and prompt preventative measures are essential.
  • People who work with animals such as veterinarians, game-rangers and animal welfare organisation workers are at high risk for exposure to rabies.
  • Although rabies occurs in a number of Southern African wild animal species, transfer to humans occurs via the bite of a domestic dog or cat in more than 90% of cases.
  • Symptoms of rabies in an animal include abnormal behaviour, excessive salivation and paralysis. Abnormal behaviour is the most  obvious sign of rabies in an animal -  a simple guideline is “when a wild animal becomes tame or a tame animal becomes wild”
  • Rabies has been acquired after people have entered caves heavily inhabited by bats. Bats infected with rabies can aerosolise the virus by sneezing
  • Symptoms of rabies in a human include abnormal behaviour, fever, anxiety, severe muscle spasms and an inability to swallow. Death is inevitable in these cases, and will occur within a few days. The usual cause of death is cessation of breathing and heart function during a seizure.
  • A dog or cat bite should always receive medical attention. If there is a risk of rabies, rabies immune globulin and a course of vaccination must be given.

(Compiled by Susan Erasmus, Health24, May 2012)

(Source: Health24, the A – Z of rabies)

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