What Is Rabies?

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 07.26.17
  • NOVA

Rabies may have lead to legends of werewolves, vampires, and zombies. And while it’s preventable, it still plagues around 60,000 people a year. Discover more in this episode of Gross Science.

Running Time: 5:04


What Is Rabies?

Published July 27, 2017

Here’s the led to an article I read in Maine’s Bangor Daily News the other day: “While jogging on a familiar, overgrown, wooded trail near her home on a recent warm afternoon, Rachel Borch thought to herself, ‘what a beautiful day.’ Little did she know she was about to be attacked by a rabid raccoon she would end up killing with her bare hands.”

First of all, the author of that article should win an award. However, I shared that story with you because I’ve had a recurring nightmare for the past 15 years about being attacked in exactly that situation. And that’s because I’ve read about how horrible rabies can be. But inspired by the recent events in Maine, today I’m going to face my fears and explore with you what rabies is and why it’s so scary.

I’m Anna, and this is Gross Science.

Rabies is a virus that’s usually spread through the bite of an infected animal—and without immediate treatment, it’s almost 100% fatal. But, that may not even be the most terrifying thing about it. The symptoms it causes are like something out of a horror movie—and in fact, this disease may have contributed to legends of werewolves, vampires, and zombies.

You see, the virus attacks your nervous system. And if it makes its way to your spinal cord, it moves rapidly up to your brain, where it multiplies.

The first signs of rabies can be a tingling in the limbs and flu-like symptoms. But then rabies can manifest itself in a few ways, which sort of exist on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is what’s called “paralytic” or “dumb” rabies, which causes muscle paralysis and comas. On the other end of the spectrum is “furious” rabies. This is more common, and patients might be agitated, confused, aggressive, or otherwise behave strangely. And animals with furious rabies can be so aggressive that they bite. Both the “dumb” and “furious” versions almost always end in death.

Perhaps the most iconic sign of the disease is foaming at the mouth. See, rabies is spread through saliva—and the virus not only ramps up spit production, but it also causes these pains in the throat that make it difficult to swallow. Animals with rabies start to drool, which increases the likelihood they’ll pass on the virus. Being able to swallow or clear away some of that saliva with water would probably decrease transmission. But many animals develop what’s called “hydrophobia” or “fear of water,” and refuse to drink.

Humans experience these symptoms, too. As the disease progresses, a patient with rabies may find even the idea of water deeply distressing. However, let me be clear that the chances that a human will pass on rabies to another human are seriously low. In fact, the only well-documented cases of human-to-human transmission have happened through rabies-infected transplants of tissues like corneas and kidneys.

So, how do you treat rabies? Well, it’s easily preventable if you get the rabies vaccine immediately after being bitten by a rabid animal. But once you start showing symptoms, the disease has historically been a death sentence. However, recently a few patients were saved after doctors put them in a coma. That said, whether this treatment method really works is highly debated—there might have been something else going on that allowed those patients to survive.

Now, depending on where you live, the chances that you’ll ever come in contact with a rabid animal, let alone actually contract rabies, are extremely low. For example, in the US, there was only one human case of rabies in 2014. And that one, like most infections here, was caused by a rabid bat.

However, rabies is a major problem in many other parts of the world. About 60,000 people die from rabies each year, and most of them are children. The vast majority of these cases are caused by rabid dogs, so simply vaccinating pets is one of the best and cheapest ways to prevent the disease. But because the virus often affects poverty stricken places, vaccinations may not be available. In fact, the World Health Organization considers rabies a neglected disease. It’s preventable—it just takes resources to do it.

Human have known about rabies for millennia. Ancient Sumerians actually recorded rules on stone tablets about how much a person would need to pay if their rabid dog bit someone—and that was around 4000 years ago. But in the 21st century, my recurring dream shouldn’t have to be a real-life nightmare for anyone.




Host, Writer, Editor
Anna Rothschild
Camera, Sound, Research
K Melvin
Nature’s World 3
Horrendous Crimes
Unwanted Assignment Main underscore
Biotic Factor b
The Human Kernal a
Music Provided by APM
Special Thanks to Dr. Ryan Wallace


Original Footage
©WGBH Educational Foundation 2017
The Wolf Man (1941)
Universal Pictures
Nosferatu (1922)
Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal, Prana-Film GmbH
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Image Ten, Laurel Group, Market Square Productions
The Nervous System
Archive.org/ Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation
Circulatory Control
Archive.org/Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Nursing Care of the Sick and Injured
Archive.org/US Dept Health, Education & Welfare; US Office of Civil Defense
Close-up of dog’s face during late-stage “dumb” paralytic rabies
CDC/Barbara Andrews
"Rabies and hydrophobia..." George Fleming 1872 Wellcome L0018105
Wikimedia Commons/George Fleming
Canine suspected of being rabid and aggressive
Rabies control in the community
US National Library of Medicine
Rabies Patient
Senses of Man
Archive.org/Indiana University, Bloomington. Audio-Visual Center
Tri-colored bat (6022400811)
Wikimedia Commons/Gary Peeples/USFWS
Presence of dog-transmitted human rabies based on most recent data points from difference sources, 2010-2014
Middle Ages rabid dog
Wikimedia Commons/Scanned from Dobson, Mary J. (2008) Disease, Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Quercus, p. 157


(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios


Canine suspected of being rabid and aggressive


WHO on Rabies: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs099/en/

Want More Info?

CDC on Rabies:

Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2014:

Map of US human rabies deaths from 2003-July 2014 drawn from data here:

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