In Tanzania, regular vaccine clinics are held to inoculate dogs against rabies.
Scientists collaborate with WSU’s Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health
to stop rabies deaths in that African nation. (Photos by Anson Fatland, WSU)
PULLMAN, Wash. – It summons images of snarling animals foaming at the mouth and sweating humans driven aggressively mad. The virus that causes it – shaped like a bullet – is more likely to kill its host than any virus known on earth. Without prompt treatment, an infected person will suffer a prolonged, agonizing illness almost certain to end in death.
While great fodder for a Steven King novel, the threat of rabies to animals and people is so real that, each year, public agencies around the globe band together to get the word out on how to prevent rabies and what to do if bitten by an animal that might be infected.
Which is why today, Sept. 28, is World Rabies Day.

WSU veterinary
Margaret Davis: 
Animals with rabies
might first appear
only slightly ill.
Getting the word out is crucial so that people don’t get complacent, said Margaret Davis, veterinarian and molecular epidemiologist at Washington State University.
Vaccinations improve control
Rabies is “one of the oldest and most deadly viruses that still threatens populations,” she said. The reason we don’t see it much in this country isn’t because the virus is running out of steam. “It’s because we’re doing a good job of controlling it,” Davis said.
Rabies mostly is spread by saliva through the bite of an infected animal, which in the U.S. before 1960 usually meant a domestic animal. In Washington state, six humans died after being bitten by rabid dogs prior to 1960, according to the state health department.

But people dying of rabies is rare since states began mandating vaccinations for dogs and cats. The virus is more likely to be spread by wild animals such as raccoons, bats and skunks, according Davis.

In Washington, bats are a “reservoir host species” for the rabies virus, she said; that is, they are a source of infection and provide a means of keeping the virus alive.
“Not all bats carry rabies,” she said. “But those that do represent a high risk of transmitting it.”
Fortunately, it’s no longer considered a death sentence when humans contract the virus, provided the vaccine – developed by French scientist Louis Pasteur in 1885 – is promptly administered. With rare exception, “Once a person starts feeling the symptoms, it’s too late,” said Davis.
Taming rabies worldwide
In poor parts of the world, where few or no vaccinations exist, children bitten by roaming dogs are often the victims, according to the World Health Organization, which monitors the disease. Consequently, rabies kills roughly 55,000 people each year, according to the agency.
Tanzania, in East Africa, is an area once hit hard by rabies deaths until WHO teamed up with the country’s government, local veterinarians and scientists worldwide to bring it under control. Many of those scientists collaborate directly with WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.
Guy Palmer, director of the school and a WSU Regents professor of pathology, said campaigns were developed to encourage residents to bring their dogs to vaccination clinics in towns and villages. Children often walked or pedaled bicycles carrying basketfuls of pups to receive rabies shots, he said.
Poe killed by rabies?
If infected, humans now get five shots in the arm, not 20 painful ones in the abdomen, which used to be the treatment. The treatment regimen, spread over a number of weeks, is pricey.
Cost aside, rabies’ medical advancements came too late for Edgar Allan Poe, who died, deranged and hallucinating, in a Baltimore, Md., hospital 36 years before the vaccine was developed. Analyses of historical records by doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center suggest that Poe died of rabies, not alcoholism.
The telltale clue: Poe became panicked when offered drinking water by hospital staff. Hydrophobia – fear of water – is a classic symptom of rabies and occurs when spasms in the throat make it painful to swallow, according to the 1996 study.
Margaret Davis, WSU Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health, 509-335-5119,
Media contact:
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-3581,