Rabies is often referred to as the “zombie virus” because it alters the behavior of its host and causes it to attack and bite other animals. Here are some other things you should know about rabies:

What is rabies?
Rabies is a virus that ultimately attacks the brain of its host and induces violent behavior. The rabies virus disrupts the usual electrical and chemical communication between neurons in the brain stem, which in turn loses its ability to regulate the heart and lungs. This is what leads to the death of its host.

How many people die from rabies?
Though rabies has largely been eradicated in the developed world, it still causes around 55,000 deaths worldwide each year, mostly in the developing world, where treatment can be difficult to come by. Its toll is heaviest on children in rural areas with limited access to the rabies vaccine. It also kills around one or two people in the U.S. each year, typically because treatment isn’t given in time.

How does a person get rabies?
Rabies is typically transferred through the saliva of an infected animal. The rabies virus is an example of a pathogen that actually hijacks the brain of the host and repurposes it to do the viruses bidding. When the virus cells attack the brain, it causes the animal to become more violent and aggressive, biting other animals it encounters. This in turn allows the virus to spread, since its primary means of transmission is saliva. The virus induces such behavior right at the time there are peak virus counts in the host’s saliva. This allows it to propagate despite the fact that it kills its host.

Rabies Symptoms

It can take weeks to months for the virus to travel to the brain and cause symptoms after a person is infected. Initial symptoms can be similar to the flu, and include fatigue, fever or headache, and itching or prickling in the place they were bitten. At later stages symptoms progress to confusion, agitation, delirium, hallucinations, and insomnia. Rabies is almost always fatal, once the latter symptoms appear; There are fewer than 20 documented cases of a person surviving after these symptoms appeared. (Fernando, 2022)

What animals carry rabies?
“Many different animals, including dogs, bats, foxes and raccoons, carry various strains of the rabies virus,” notes Maryn McKenna (2013). Though just about any type of animal can be infected, some are more prone to spread the disease to humans than others. Globally, domesticated and stray dogs are responsible for nearly all of the 55,000 rabies deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. Rabid bats account for 70% of all rabies cases in the US. (Fernando, 2022)

How dangerous is rabies?
Left unchecked, rabies has an almost perfect 100% mortality rate. There are a few isolated cases of a person surviving without the benefit of the vaccine, but these cases are extremely rare.

Treatment for rabies
The good news is that there is a vaccine for the rabies virus that prevents it from progressing to its dangerous stages. If taken quickly after a person is infected, it has an almost perfect success rate. When people die from rabies, it’s because they either waited too long after being bit to see their doctor and take the vaccine or didn’t have access to adequate medical care. So if you suspect someone you love has been bitten by a rabid animal, wash the wound and the hands, and seek medical care immediately.