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You’ve probably heard of rabies, and you probably know that it’s a real killer disease. In fact, no one has ever recovered from infection. It is caused by a virus in the lyssavirus family which attacks the central nervous system.
Animals infected with rabies shed the virus in saliva. It is most famously passed on by bites, but can also be passed on if an infected animal were to lick at an existing wound. One of the signs of infection in many animals is actually increased aggression – this means they are more likely to bite and pass infection on.
From the site of infection, the rabies virus travels up the nerves to the brain, where it causes inflammation (encephalomyelitis). This leads to a variety of neurological signs – most commonly behavioural changes and acute paralysis. Wild animals lose their fear of people, and nocturnal animals might wander in the day. Not all affected animals will become aggressive. Most affected animals die as a result of paralysis of the muscles that control breathing.
Rabies is invariably fatal. It also remains a serious human health risk in the developing world, where it causes the deaths of over 50,000 people a year. Most of these are in young people, and in 99% of cases the person contracted the infection from a dog.
Luckily, the UK is rabies free, and though rabies is present in wildlife in mainland Europe, it is not common.
Vaccination against rabies is very successful. It is not required for dogs and cats resident in the UK, but is a legal requirement for travel.
You can help prevent human deaths from rabies by looking at donating to an organisation such as Mission Rabies, which aims to protect human health by vaccinating stray and wandering dogs against rabies.