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The Rabies Virus
What is rabies?

How do you get rabies?

What does the virus do?

History Of Rabies

Sean's story

Nerve man

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a disease that affects wild animals, domestic animals (like pets and livestock), and humans. It is caused by a virus. A virus is a very tiny germ. You can see the rabies virus only with a special electron microscope. Only mammals (warm-blooded animals with fur) can get rabies. The image you see to the left of every page in this site is a photograph from an electron microscope of the rabies virus (the color has been added for effect). 


Here is a special photograph of the rabies virus. It was taken in an electron microscope.  See how the virus is shaped like a rod or a bullet.  The rabies virus is gray when you see it in the microscope.

rabies virus

The word "rabies" comes from a Latin word that means "to rage." Rabies got its name because animals with rabies sometimes act as if they are angry. Rabies attacks the brain and spinal cord. It kills you if not prevented. The best way to prevent rabies is to make sure your pets get their rabies shots and to avoid contact with wild or stray animals.

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What is a virus?
A virus is one of the smallest germs we know. Viruses are so tiny they can be seen only with a powerful microscope called an electron microscope. Viruses appear to be shaped like balls, cubes, or rods. Scientists differ over whether viruses are "alive" or not.  Viruses cannot digest food or grow on their own. Viruses can make more of themselves, but they need to live inside the cells of other organisms (called "hosts") to multiply.

More than 300 viruses in animals have been discovered. Some are harmless and others cause disease, such as the common cold or measles. Other viruses include the flu virus, the chickenpox virus, the Ebola virus, and the virus that causes AIDS.

Viruses cause disease by attacking the cells of the host (which can be a plant, animal, or human). They enter the host cell. Once inside, the virus makes more viruses. The host cell may die.  The virus leaves the host cell and moves on to other host cells where the process starts again.

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How do you get rabies?

You get rabies from the saliva of a rabid animal, usually from a bite.  The rabies virus is spread through saliva. It is not spread through contact with urine, feces, or blood of an infected animal.

dog biting a man

You cannot get rabies by petting an animal. You may get rabies from a scratch if the animal, such as a cat,  was licking its paw before it scratched you. (Remember that the rabies virus is found in the saliva of an animal).

In very rare cases, rabies has been spread from one person to another after a corneal transplant.  In several instances, the cornea  (part of the eye) from a person who died of rabies was transplanted to a healthy person, who then got the disease. 


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What does the virus do?

The targets of the rabies virus are nerve cells.  Nerve cells are one part of the body’s nervous system. The nervous system helps direct body movements. It helps us run, walk, move, sit, and touch. It also helps us adjust to changes going on around the body, for example by sweating when it is hot.

nerve man


The rabies virus infects the body usually through a bite from a rabid animal. Once inside the body, the virus travels along the peripheral nerves (the nerves that run throughout the body). Its main target is the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord.


How the rabies virus interacts with the nerve cells:

There are four main stages the virus goes through:
  • Attachment: The rabies virus attaches itself to a healthy nerve cell.
  • Penetration: The virus is taken in by the cell.
  • Replication: Inside the cell, the virus multiplies rapidly.
  • Budding: The new rabies virus leaves the host cell. It attaches to other nerve cells. The virus then spreads from the brain to the rest of the body by the nerves.

rabies infecting a neuron

The rabies virus in this picture has been made large so that you can understand it better. 

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History of rabies

People have known about rabies for a long time, although the virus itself was not seen under the electron microscope   until the 1960s. Rabies in animals was reported in early Babylonian, Greek, and Roman records.  Rabies was likely brought to the Americas when settlers first came from Europe, bringing rabid animals with them.

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur

A 9-year-old boy was the first person to have received an effective shot for rabies. In 1885, Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. His parents went to the famous French biologist Louis Pasteur. They begged him to help their son. Pasteur thought that if he injected a weak form of virus from one rabid animal into another, the second animal might be able to fight off the disease. He tried this hypothesis out on Joseph. The boy survived and lived a long life. That was how people starting giving shots for rabies.

After this success. other rabies vaccines were made. In the 1950s, people who had been bitten by a rabid animal got 23 shots along the abdomen. Today, the shots are more effective and less painful. They consist of a series of 6 shots given in the arm over a 1 month period.  One shot is given around the bite and the rest are given in the arm. 

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Sean and the Raccoon
Sean is 11 years old. He was camping with his class at the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia.  While there, he was bitten by a raccoon.  This is his story in his own words.


I was on a class trip to the Okeefenokee with all my 5th grade class. It was on the first day we all set up our tents and helped the teachers unpack the vans with all the food and stuff. The second day we were there we went canoeing up the river to Billy’s Island and back. The third day we were there we went half way up to Big Water and back. The fourth day we all hung out around the camp, then at night, a ranger came and told us funny stories, and then we went to bed. In the middle of the night I felt a sharp pain in my arm, 

I looked down and saw two bite marks and some blood. I heard a rustle like something going out of my tent and saw a raccoon. I sat up and called for the teacher. We cleaned out the bite with soap, hot water, and a disinfectant. In the morning, we went to the hospital in Homerville, Georgia.  At the hospital they had a shot ready to knock me out if I was too hysterical, but I didn’t need it. They took me into a room where I lay there waiting for the pharmacist to get the immune globulin (one of the shots for rabies). While I was waiting for the immune globulin (one of the shots) lots of people came in and asked "are you the boy who got bit?" "Yes," I would answer.   "Well, you know that you are a lucky boy because 10 years ago you had to get 26 shots in the stomach and boy did they hurt." Then they would walk away. After they put the I.V in, they gave me 2 shots of immune globulin (half was near the bite and half somewhere else), 1 shot of tetanus and the vaccine. I had to wait one hour to make sure that I did not have a allergic reaction to any of it. When I got home my parents were glad to see me. After that I got 4 more shots over a period of one month.

If you have to get the shots, don’t tense up. Just relax, because it hurts a whole lot less. If you are around wild animals, don’t mess with them. Just don’t feed them because then later they will come back for more.

Fortunately for Sean, today we have a vaccine that works and is relatively painless. In the past, before a vaccine was available, when someone was bitten by a rabid animal, there was nothing anyone could do except clean the wound and wait to see if they developed rabies. And if they did develop rabies, they would die.

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This page last reviewed February 6, 2003

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