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Reprinted here with the kind permission from Kansas State University Media Relations and Marketing, and slightly edited.


February 19, 1998 [with May, 2001 update below]

Americans know that rabies is a real-life version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that affects thousands of animals each year. But Dr. Deborah Briggs, director of the Rabies Laboratory at Kansas State University, says that people should be just as concerned for themselves as they are for their pets when it comes to rabies. "For all animals, including humans, clinical rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal if not caught in time," she said.

Briggs notes that the effects of rabies, made famous by the movie "Cujo," are just as frightening as the prognosis of death. "Rabies strikes fear in the heart of man," Briggs said.

As well it should. Real-life cases of infection aren't far from silver screen portrayals. The rabies virus affects the central nervous system and brain, causing a variety of clinical symptoms including hallucinations, restlessness, and sometimes uncharacteristically aggressive episodes in an infected pet. This stage precedes paralysis of the body and throat muscles which can prevent an animal from swallowing, leading to foaming of the mouth. Finally, an infected animal will slip into a coma and die. According to Briggs, infected humans exhibit similar alternating stages of agitation and lucidity, as well as paralysis and eventual death.

Before these symptoms strike, rabies can be prevented in humans through a series of five shots in the arm. Briggs says that rabies immune globulin is also administered at the time of the first shot of vaccine.

"If there were a good thing about rabies, it would be that it's a slow-acting virus. You can be vaccinated after exposure to prevent the disease," Briggs said.

K-State has been conducting clinical trials of human rabies vaccines since 1986, all of which have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Once the purity and effectiveness of a particular vaccine is established, volunteer veterinary students are vaccinated with the new vaccine. "The students need to be vaccinated for their future vocation and they get paid for their involvement. It works well for all of us," Briggs said.

Developing better rabies vaccines is a never-ending process. Briggs explains that the current vaccines on trial at K-State produce fewer allergic reactions: good news for the animal control workers, veterinarians and students who must receive three shots as a pre-exposure series to build immunity in case of exposure.

Vaccinations won't always be such a pain. With the help of researchers, plants carrying vaccine material may someday replace injections.

"In the future, you could eat breakfast and be immunized for rabies," Briggs said.

Not only does the lab help develop new human rabies vaccines, Briggs' staff also helps people who want to take pets to rabies-free areas, or zones free of the virus, like Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. "Three years ago, pets had to be quarantined for up to four months after arrival in rabies-free areas. That causes emotional trauma for both pet and owner," Dr. Briggs said. But tests conducted at K-State's Rabies Lab may reduce the amount of time that a dog or cat has to be quarantined to only 30 days.

"We do more rabies serologies than any other lab in the world," Dr. Briggs said. "Last year, we did over 30, 000 blood tests. People recognize us for our service and because we have such an excellent staff."

K-State has the only rabies testing lab in Kansas. In fact, Dr. Briggs' lab has become a rabies regional testing center to determine virus type for specimens in the Midwest region. Dr. Briggs says that the Nebraska-Kansas border is a zone of transition for two strains of skunk rabies. As part of its research commitment, the K-State lab genetically identifies or types the differences between the two strains.

The K-State rabies researchers' major contribution is to public safety through human vaccine trials, animal testing and disease tracking around the community. Dr.Doitchinoff says that as settled human territory infringes on wildlife areas, rabies is moving closer to home and the lab's work becomes more crucial. "We help keep the pet and human populations safer," Dr. Doitchinoff said.


Update May 2001


There are two sides to every story, and rabies is no exception. Victims bitten by an unvaccinated pet experience the fear of potential rabies. But owners of unvaccinated pets often face sorrow because their animal will be euthanized in order to test for rabies. However, Dr. Deborah Briggs, director of K-State's Rabies Laboratory, says that Texas' implementation of new procedures offers encouragement for pets and owners nationwide.

When a person is bitten by an animal suspected of being rabid, he or she must be given a rabies vaccination to help produce antibody that will fend off a possible infection. But when an unvaccinated animal has been bitten by a rabid animal, it is left up to the Public Health Department official to decide if the animal should be put to sleep and tested for the presence of rabies virus.

Dr. Briggs says that health officials in Texas are collecting data on treating unvaccinated animals exposed to rabid animals in a similar manner to humans.

"Animals are vaccinated and observed rather than immediately destroyed. If the animal remains healthy after an appropriate amount of time, it is released. Their program has been very successful," Dr. Briggs said.

Above all, though, Dr. Briggs says that the best treatment for rabies is prevention. Pet owners should have their animals vaccinated for rabies. Also, citizens need to report animals they suspect have rabies. Animals that are overtly disoriented, unusually agitated, and unable to move parts of the body should be reported. If you suspect infection, contact the local health department for assistance.

For more information, contact Dr. Briggs, 785/ 532-5650

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Highly recommended additional Links at Kasas State Univerisity's Web Site, with extensive information about rabies.


Copyright 1995 Helen L. McKinnon All Rights Reserved

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