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Why Rabies Still Kills

In principle, no human should die from rabies anymore, and yet the virus still kills 59,000 people annually, mostly in Asian and African countries. That total is not as high as the death toll from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria; but, unlike those diseases, every mammal appears to be susceptible.

SINGAPORE – A virus that infects your brain, makes you want to bite things, and is almost always fatal after symptoms appear probably sounds like something from a zombie movie. But this has been the modus operandi of rabies at least since 2300 BC, when it was described in the Eshuma Code of Babylon. The word’s Sanskrit etymology – rabhas, meaning “to do violence” – dates back even further, to 3000 BC.

In principle, no human in this day and age should die from rabies, and yet, according to a 2015 study, the virus kills 59,000 people annually. That’s 160 people every day, and the actual number might be far higher if we could count unreported or untreated cases. Most of these deaths occur in Asia and Africa, with India alone accounting for one-third of the world’s total mortality from rabies.

That total is not as high as the death toll from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria; but, unlike those diseases, every mammal appears to be susceptible to rabies. Dogs, the predominant host in most regions, can become infected from any rabid wild animal, and then infect humans. Dogs showing symptoms may bite a human, but they can also transmit the virus simply by licking if their saliva comes into contact with a scratch, damaged skin, or mucosa.

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