By Kiara Scatliffe, Epidemiologist, U.S. Army Public Health CommandAugust 29, 2014
September 28 is World Rabies Day, a time to raise awareness about rabies and to enhance prevention and control efforts. In the United States, rabies is relatively rare, thanks in part to strong pet vaccination programs, but around the world an estimated 55,000 people die of rabies each year. Many of these deaths are due to dog bites, as many countries lack effective animal vaccination programs. Soldiers must understand how to reduce their risk of rabies when travelling or during deployment.
What is rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system, including the brain. Rabies is transmitted to humans through the saliva of infected animals--either from a bite or through contact with broken skin (pre-existing wound or a scratch from the infected animal), eyes or the mouth. Early symptoms may include headache, fever and discomfort at the exposure site. A person won't develop symptoms immediately after an exposure to rabies--usually not for weeks or months. Rabies is usually fatal once symptoms appear, but receiving appropriate treatment before symptoms start prevents disease.
A good rule of thumb for rabies prevention is to avoid exposure. Despite the common belief that rabid animals are easily identified by foaming at the mouth and aggressive behavior, infected animals may actually appear calm and not look sick or act strangely. Since a person cannot tell for sure if an animal has rabies, contact with animals with unknown vaccination histories (strays, wild animals) should be considered a potential exposure. Sleeping in the same room as a bat is also considered an exposure; bat bites may be small enough to go undetected.
During deployment, you should follow General Order #1, which prohibits keeping mascots or pets. Although it may be a comfort to have an animal, the long-term risks significantly outweigh the short-term benefits. Stray animals, regardless of how tame they appear, may have rabies that could result in death or exposure of countless Soldiers. You should not approach, feed or handle animals.
Take measures to make your quarters less inviting to animals. Keep screens in good repair and close or seal openings that could allow animals to enter. Keep plants trimmed to reduce cover. Secure trash and fasten trashcan lids tightly so animals cannot scavenge discarded food.
Finally, if there are animal problems at your location, inform your chain of command so they can engage preventive medicine, veterinary staff or vector control for action. Only qualified, prevaccinated, pest control personnel should manage animal issues. In the past, units have failed to follow proper and safe procedures when addressing animal control and put their own personnel at risk for rabies and other diseases.
What do I do if I'm exposed?
If bitten or scratched by an animal or if animal saliva contacts broken skin, eyes or mouth, first wash out the area for at least 15 minutes. Additional cleansing with alcohol or iodine can be beneficial. Seek medical care as soon as possible, and be sure you are seen by a doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner, not just the unit medic. Your healthcare provider will prescribe the appropriate post-exposure treatment.
Do your part--celebrate World Rabies Day by ensuring you are aware of rabies risks and following prevention measures. If you have questions about rabies prevention, consult your local preventive medicine or veterinary personnel.