When it comes to killer diseases, you will be hard-pressed to find anything more lethal than rabies. Tens of thousands of people contract the disease each year. Once the symptoms begin to show, the prognosis is grim. Actually, to label the prognosis as “grim” is a wildly over-optimistic description. In terms of killers, rabies is as bad as it gets.
Today’s headlines are consumed with reports of the death tolls from COVID-19. As tragic as each case is, the lethality rate for the disease appears to be somewhere between 0.8% and 3%. (The rate is about 7% among those who have been positively diagnosed, however, the lower numbers are more reliable, in light of estimates of how many undiagnosed cases exist.) In other words, between 97% and 99.2% of everyone who contracts COVID-19 will recover.
Contrast that with rabies.
Humans contract rabies primarily through animal bites. The word rabies comes from the Latin and means “to rage.” Animals with rabies are known to act aggressively, thus increasing the likelihood of biting any nearby humans. As the disease progresses, its victims develop hypersensitivity to light and sound as well as paralysis of the nerves that control the head and throat. An additional symptom is a fear of water, thus the reason for its historic name “hydrophobia.” Ultimately, death comes through respiratory failure.
Prior to 1885 there was essentially no hope for anyone who contracted the disease. Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux developed a vaccine that year, and for the first time, there was a possibility of recovery for those who received the vaccine. That assumes, however, that treatment is given immediately after being bitten. Once the symptoms of the disease begin to show, it is too late.
This year approximately 59,000 people will contract the disease and begin to show symptoms. It is a safe bet that every single one of them will die. In recorded history, there are only about fourteen people who have managed to survive after exhibiting the first symptoms. In other words, its lethality rate is, for all practical purposes, 100%.
Rabies is a relentless killer, taking the life of one person every nine minutes. Most of the cases around the world come from bites from rabid dogs. In the United States, where aggressive pet vaccination programs have all but eliminated this manner of transmission, most cases come from bites from bats. Since bat bites are small, the victims frequently are unaware of having been bitten until it is too late.
Since most rabies cases, by far, are transmitted by dogs, vaccination programs are the best hope of reducing and ultimately eradicating the ghastly disease. In hopes of better educating the public, September 28 of each year has been designated as World Rabies Day.
Several worthy organizations exist for the purpose of not only educating the public but also proactively combatting the spread of the disease. One of these, Mission Rabies, pursues its mission to “eliminate human deaths from dog mediated rabies, by vaccinating the canine population and educating communities.” For more information, read this informational guide “A-Z of Rabies” and be sure to go the Mission Rabies website to find out what you can do to make this vision a reality.
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