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Rabies: Symptoms, testing and treatment options

The World Health Organization (WHO) says rabies is a vaccine-preventable, zoonotic, viral disease. However, once symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal.

WASHINGTON — A fox that was recently captured from U.S. Capitol grounds and reportedly attacked multiple people, including a California congressman, has tested positive for rabies, according to DC Health. 

U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) said he was bitten by a fox Monday and received rabies shots at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.  

Every year, more than 29 million people receive a rabies vaccine after being bitten by an animal. The World Health Organization says rabies deaths are rarely reported on a global scale but children between five and 14 years old are frequently the victims.

Rabies can be found on every continent, except Antarctica, and 95% of human deaths due to rabies happen in Asia and Africa regions. WHO reports that one person is killed every nine minutes from the rabies virus.

RELATED: DC Health: Euthanized fox tests positive for rabies; fate of her kits unclear

What is rabies?

According to WHO, rabies is a vaccine-preventable, zoonotic, viral disease. However, once symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal.

How is the rabies virus transmitted?

The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. People are oftentimes infected after a deep bite or scratch.

Wild animals aren't fully to blame when it comes to the transmission of rabies. When it comes to humans contracting rabies, WHO says in up to 99% of cases the virus was transmitted to the human from a domestic dog.

In America, the WHO reports that bats are now the major source of human rabies deaths, however, the Mayo Clinic also lists coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks as animals most likely to transmit the virus. 

RELATED: After 5 rabies deaths in 2021, CDC says some of those lives could've been saved

Rabies Symptoms

The beginning symptoms of the rabies virus are similar to flu symptoms and may last for days, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

WHO reports there are two different forms of the disease, Furious rabies and Paralytic rabies. 

Symptoms of furious rabies can include:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Excitable behavior
  • Hydrophobia (the fear of water)
  • Aerophobia (the fear of drafts or of fresh air)

Paralytic rabies accounts for about 20% of the total number of human cases. WHO says this form of rabies "runs a less dramatic and usually longer course" than the other form.

Symptoms of paralytic rabies can include muscles gradually becoming paralyzed and a slowly developing coma. WHO says this form of rabies is often misdiagnosed and contributes to the under-reporting of the disease.

Later signs and symptoms may include: 

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive salivation
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Partial paralysis

How do you get tested for rabies?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says rabies tests for humans are performed on samples of saliva, serum, spinal fluid, and skin biopsies of hair follicles at the nape of the neck.

Rabies prevention tips

WHO, the Mayo Clinic and the CDC have shared various tips on how to prevent contracting the rabies virus.

Experts urge people to vaccinate their pets against the rabies virus and talk to their veterinarian about how often their pet should be vaccinated. 

If you are bitten by an animal, immediately wash the wound for a minimum of 15 minutes with soap and water, detergent, povidone iodine or other substances that remove and kill the rabies virus. After washing the wound, report the bite to your local animal control agency. Make sure to identify and observe the animal, but do not risk exposure again and get prompt medical attention by visiting the nearest emergency room. 

The Mayo Clinic urges people to get medical attention even if they are unsure if they have been bit.

"For instance, a bat that flies into your room while you're sleeping may bite you without waking you. If you awake to find a bat in your room, assume you've been bitten," the clinic website reads. "Also, if you find a bat near a person who can't report a bite, such as a small child or a person with a disability, assume that person has been bitten." 

What is it like to get a rabies vaccine?

According to the CDC, the rabies vaccine process consists of four doses for someone who has never been vaccinated against the disease and two doses for those who have received previous vaccinations. 

The CDC reports some people experience reactions to the vaccine, including:

  • Soreness, redness, swelling, or itching at the site of the injection, and headache, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle aches, or dizziness can happen after the rabies vaccine.
  • Hives, pain in the joints, or fever sometimes happen after booster doses.
  • Very rarely, nervous system disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) have been reported after the rabies vaccine.

RELATED: US bans dogs brought in from 100 countries with rabies risk

WATCH NEXT: 6-year-old girl receiving rabies shots after dog bite at Catoctin Mountain Park

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