Rabies is the oldest infectious disease known to medical science. It is a fatal viral infection carried in the saliva of warm-blooded animals. Most cases occur in KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape and the transfer to humans is usually from a domestic rabid dog. Rabies also occurs in some indigenous wild animals, such as the bat-eared fox (Namibia and North-Western Cape), black-backed jackal (Northern Province) and yellow mongoose (over most parts of the interior). These wild animals seldom come into contact with humans and so it is very rare that they transmit rabies to humans.
All dogs and cats should be vaccinated against rabies every three years. This may be done at no charge at a state veterinary clinic.
Symptoms in an infected animal include unusual behaviour, aggressiveness, excessive drooling (can give the appearance of froth) and paralysis. A warning sign for rabies is when a wild animal becomes tame or a tame animal becomes wild, or if a night animal appears during the day.
Symptoms in humans appear about 20 – 60 days after being bitten by a rabid animal. Deep or multiple bites, particularly to the head and neck, result in symptoms to appear sooner. An early symptom is tingling, pain or intense itchiness at the site of the bite, even when the wound has already healed. Other early symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and behavioural changes.
If a person has been bitten by an animal with rabies, the disease can be prevented by an injection of rabies immune globulin and a course of vaccinations. However, this must preferably be given within 48 hours to be effective. This treatment is available from district surgeons and large public hospitals.