Most Wanted Virus

Rabies Virus

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease affecting the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It is transmitted from infected mammals to man and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Fortunately, only a few human cases are reported each year in the United States.


Rabies virus was recognized in Egypt before 2300 B.C. and was described by Aristotle in ancient Greece. It has been characterized by many as one of the oldest and most feared diseases of both animals and man. It is the most lethal of all infectious diseases and has the widest host range of any virus. It was also responsible for inspiring one of the most significant biomedical discoveries in history. In 1885 Louis Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine during a time when the nature of viruses was still a mystery. It was the success of this vaccine that inspired scientists to prevent infectious diseases by vaccination.


Treatment consists of one dose of rabies immune globulin (dosage dependent on body weight) and five doses of rabies vaccine given on days 0, 3, 7, 14 and 28 after exposure. The rabies immune globulin should be given as soon as possible after exposure. The full amount should be put into the wound, if possible. The first dose of vaccine should be given at the same time but in a different site, usually in the upper arm.

Exposure to rabies may be minimized by:

  • removing all stray dogs and cats
  • having all pets vaccinated and keeping them up-to-date on their vaccinations
  • avoiding contact with all wild animals, especially those acting abnormally.

To control the spread of rabies in wild animals such as raccoons, the New York State Department of Health oversees projects to distribute a special bait containing rabies vaccine. Baits are placed in wooded areas in order to immunize raccoons against rabies - an effort to reduce the spread of rabies in the wildlife population.


It is often accompanied by a fever, headache, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea, and fatigue. As the infection progresses, someone infected with rabies may develop any of these symptoms:

  • irritability.
  • excessive movements or agitation.
  • confusion.
  • hallucinations.
  • aggressiveness.
  • bizarre or abnormal thoughts.
  • muscle spasms.

How soon after exposure do symptoms occur?

The incubation period (time between exposure to the virus and the start of symptoms) is variable but is normally two to eight weeks. Incubation periods of over one year have been reported.

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Who gets rabies?

All warm blooded mammals including man can get rabies. Among wild animals, rabies is most often seen in raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.