The following are the 10 most commonly asked questions about rabies, with answers provided by health authorities and the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy:
1. What is rabies?
Rabies is a virus that affects the nerve tissue of its victim. It is found worldwide.
2. Is it always fatal?
Almost without exception, yes, once the symptoms appear. There have been only three reported cases of survival following the onslaught of the disease -- and many medical experts question even those reports.
3. How do animals catch it?
By being bitten by or coming into contact with the saliva of an infected animal through a cut, wound or the mucous membranes.
4. How do humans catch it?
By being bitten by or coming into contact with the saliva of an infected animal or, less frequently, another person. Rabies can just as easily enter the body through a scratch and the mucous membranes as through a bite. In rare cases, a person can contract the disease by handling a recently dead rabid animal.
5. What is the progress of the disease in humans?
The virus initially concentrates in the victim's brain, then spreads into the salivary glands and saliva.
The time elapsed before the symptoms become apparent can range from 10 days to as long as a year but generally averages 30 to 50 days. The symptoms may appear sooner if the victim was bitten on the head or had numerous bites.
Generally, the first symptom of rabies is a tingling or numbing sensation at the site of the original bite, which may even have healed. Depression, restlessness and fever follow. The restlessness increases until the victim becomes uncontrollably excited and there is heavy salivation. Excruciating throat spasms that can be triggered by the slightest disturbance begin. Because the victim is often unable to drink water without triggering them, rabies became known as hydrophobia, which means fear of water.
The victim dies, either from asphyxia, exhaustion, paralysis, or a combination of them, within three to 10 days.
The last person to die from rabies in Virginia was an animal shelter worker bitten by a rabid animal in 1953.
6. What animals can carry rabies?
Rabies infects mammals, most often carnivores, or meat-eating mammals. Although rabid dogs are the most common transmitter of the disease to humans worldwide, the widespread requirement that pets be vaccinated for rabies in the United States has reduced that danger here. Wild animals remain the largest threat. There remain large numbers of unvaccinated housepets, especially cats, however.
The wild animals most likely to be carriers are raccoons, foxes, bats and skunks. Raccoons are the major carriers in the current Washington area outbreak.
Rabbits and rodents, like rats, mice, and squirrels, are very rarely infected.
7. How can you tell if an animal is rabid?
A foaming mouth is only one of the symptoms of rabies in animals. In fact, rabid animals are just as likely to have "dumb rabies" as the more dramatic "furious rabies."
Animals with dumb rabies may appear lethargic, weak and nonaggressive. They also may appear to have difficulty swallowing. The animal's hindquarters may seem to be sore and sensitive to touch.
Rabid wild animals may also appear passive. Any wild animal that allows itself to be approached should be immediately suspect. Nocturnal animals -- among them skunks and raccoons -- spotted during daylight should be considered rabid, too.
8. What should you do if you think an animal is rabid?
Do not touch the animal. Telephone your local health department or animal shelter for assistance. Those numbers are:
Alexandria, call the Animal Shelter, 838-4775. The Animal Shelter will rent wild animal traps for five days at a time. A $25 refundable deposit is required.
Arlington County, call the Animal Welfare League, 931-9241 or the police department, 558-2222.
Fairfax County, call the animal warden, 830-3310. For emergencies after regular hours, call 691-2131. The Animal Shelter rents wild animal traps for 25 cents a day with a $20 deposit refundable when the trap is returned. For information, call the Animal Shelter, 830-1100.
Falls Church, call the Department of Animal Control, 241-5050.
Fauquier County, call the county health department, 347-4510.
Loudoun County, call the Department of Animal Control, 777-0406.
Prince William County, call the Environmental Health Division at 368-8153.
9. What should you do if you come in contact with or are bitten by an animal you think is rabid?
Contact your doctor immediately or call your local health department. The contaminated area should be immediately and thoroughly cleaned with warm soapy water and soaked for about 10 minutes. Once the contaminated area has dried, iodine should be applied liberally.
10. What can you do to help fight the current outbreak?
Immunize your pet against rabies. Cats are particularly vulnerable because they are allowed more freedom than dogs and thus are more likely to be exposed to rabid wildlife.
Virginia law requires all dogs to be vaccinated for rabies. Although there is no such requirement for cats, health officials urge owners to have their cats vaccinated, too.
Some local jurisdictions are holding special rabies vaccination clinics. They are:
Arlington: 2-4 p.m. Thursday at the Department of Human Resources, 1800 N. Edison St. Fee is $4 for dogs, $2 for cats.
Fairfax County: 2-4 p.m. Nov. 21 at two locations: Fairfax Animal Shelter at 4500 West Ox Rd. and West Springield Fire Station, 6140 Rolling Rd. Fee for dogs is $6, cats, $4.
Loudoun County: 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Loudoun County animal shelter, intersection of Rte. 9 and Hwy. 704; Fee is $4 for dogs and cats.
Do not keep wild animals as pets. There is no approved rabies vaccination for wild animals.
Do not feed wild animals or leave pet food outdoors where it can attract wild animals. Keep lids tight on trash cans. Do not put garbage bags on sidewalks or streets until pickup day.
Block off all holes in which a wild animal could enter your house, garage or shed. Pay particular attention to chimneys.
Persons who come in frequent contact with wild animals -- game wardens, veterinarians, animal shelter employees, trappers and others -- are encouraged to take human pre-exposure rabies vaccination shots.