5 cases of humans with rabies: Here's what you should know

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Since December 2017 five cases of human rabies have been confirmed in South Africa.
Since December 2017 five cases of human rabies have been confirmed in South Africa.

On 7 March 2018, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stated that five cases of human rabies had been reported in South Africa since December 2017.

The patients were from Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. Another probable case was also reported in the Free-State – this patient had contact with a rabid cat, but lab tests couldn’t confirm a diagnosis. 

What is rabies?

According to Health24, rabies is a fatal viral disease that causes brain inflammation The disease occurs in wild and domestic mammals, but also occasionally in humans when they are exposed to animals carrying the virus.

How is it transmitted?

The rabies virus, present in the saliva of an animal, can be transferred to a human through bites, scratches or other wounds that break the skin and allow the saliva to enter the body.

rabies in South Africa, domestic pets

What are the symptoms you should look out for?

Rabies can occur as long as 20 to 60 days after exposure to the virus, but it can also occur months or years after exposure. Early symptoms are often vague, but can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tingling and intense itchiness at the site of the bite after the wound has healed
  • Anxiety and difficulty sleeping

As the virus progresses, the symptoms become more distressing until death occurs. These include:

  • Severe agitation
  • Aggressive, uncontrollable behaviour
  • Inability to swallow
  • Excessive salivation
  • Seizures
  • An irrational fear of water, triggered when water is offered to drink

Sometimes people with rabies do not have these dramatic symptoms, but gradually become completely paralysed and slip into a terminal coma. This form of rabies is more difficult to recognise.

Can you prevent rabies?

Rabies in domestic animals can be controlled through rabies vaccination. According to the NICD, rabies vaccination of domestic dogs and cats is mandatory by law in South Africa. All pet owners should take the responsibility to have their pets vaccinated on schedule. Consult your veterinarian for more information. Make sure your pets' vaccinations are up to date today. 

Avoid stray animals, animals that are behaving strangely or that appear sick. Infected wild animals may appear unusually tame.

Is there a cure?

No. A person can be kept alive on life-support, but no-one has yet made a recovery from rabies. Once symptoms have started, basically nothing can be done to halt the progression of the disease. 

What should you do in the case of possible exposure?

If you or your children are bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Go to a healthcare facility immediately to have the risk of rabies assessed. A health professional will also offer you the following preventative measures:

  • A series of rabies vaccinations (also called post-exposure prophylaxis)
  • Wound care and disinfection
  • A tetanus booster vaccination

Image credit: iStock

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