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Acute, usually fatal infectious disease of warm-blooded animals that attacks the central nervous system. It is spread by contact with an infected animal's saliva, usually from a bite. The rhabdovirus that causes it spreads along nerve tissue from the wound to the brain. Symptoms usually appear four to six weeks later, often beginning with irritability and aggressiveness. Wild animals lose their fear of humans and are easily provoked to bite, as are pets. Depression and paralysis soon follow. Death usually comes three to five days after symptoms begin. In humans, death can result from a seizure in the early phase even before symptoms of central nervous system depression develop. One name for rabies, hydrophobia (fear of water), comes from painful throat contraction on trying to swallow. If not treated in time (within a day or two) with a serum containing antibodies and then a series of vaccinations, rabies in humans is almost always fatal. Immediate cleansing of animal bites with soap and water can remove much of the virus.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on rabies, visit Britannica.com.