Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Rabies Works


Rabies Prevention and Treatment

Effective rabies prevention really just comes down to knowing what to look for. Good judgment and common sense are paramount to staying rabies-free. Rabies is a deadly disease, but most people go their entire lives without running into a rabid animal, so it can be avoided. However, if treatment becomes necessary, the rabies vaccine is still the principal, and only, line of defense.

Pasteur's vaccine relied on an attenuated, or weakened, form of the rabies virus gathered from the spinal cords of infected animals. By applying a series of vaccinations of increasingly potent forms of the virus over several days, Pasteur found he could inoculate animals to the disease. By slowly introducing the virus, Pasteur allowed the body to build up a resistance, so by the time the disease reached the central nervous system the body had developed an immunity to it [source: Cohn].

The vaccine we use today follows the same concept but is much less dangerous. Pasteur developed a live-attenuated vaccine, or an alive but weakened form of the virus. Today, we use an inactivated vaccine, or vaccine that is already dead. Immunity can still be built up using a dead virus, though it often doesn't last as long as a live-attenuated vaccine. There are also fewer side effects with an inactivated vaccine.

Both people and pets can be pre-emptively vaccinated for rabies. For pets in the U.S., it's often a crime not to do so, though that is not yet true in all states. Some people with a high risk for contracting the disease are often encouraged to be vaccinated before they become exposed. Veterinarians, spelunkers, some lab technicians and individuals who frequently travel to rabies hot spots around the globe often receive regular rabies shots as a precautionary measure.

Now that you're well-versed in all things rabies, check out the links on the next page to learn more about other gruesome but compelling sicknesses and diseases such as the bubonic plague and avian flu.


More to Explore