Rabies Vaccine: What You Need To Know

By:    Published: June 21, 2012

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Rabies is a serious viral infection that can be fatal if it is not treated immediately. To counteract the severity of this infection, there is a vaccine that can prevent infection from occurring if given in time. Because there is such a slim timeline for treatment, it is essential that those who have been or think that they have been infected seek medical attention immediately to get the rabies vaccine.

How Does It Work?

The rabies vaccine is given to people to prevent infection from the rabies virus. It can be given before exposure to those who are at risk of being infected, something called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or it can be given after a person thinks he or she been exposed, called post-exposure prophylaxis.

The rabies vaccine is created from a killed rabies virus. It will not cause a rabies infection.

The vaccine works by causing the body's immune system to create antibodies to guard against the infection. It is given in multiple doses based upon whether or not the person has been exposed and if the person has ever been vaccinated for rabies before.

Immunization Schedule

The immunization schedule for those who are being vaccinated for pre-exposure prophylaxis is:

  • Dose one: As appropriate
  • Dose two: Seven days after dose one
  • Dose three: 21-28 days after dose one

The immunization schedule for those who are being vaccinated for post-exposure prophylaxis is:

  • Dose one: Immediately after exposure
  • Dose two: Three days after dose one
  • Dose three: Seven days after dose one
  • Dose four: 14 days after dose one

In addition, those who have been exposed should also get the rabies immune globulin vaccine at the same time as the first dose of the rabies vaccine.

If the person has previously received the rabies vaccine, only the first two doses are needed and the rabies immune globulin vaccine is not needed.

Who Needs It?

The rabies vaccine is given to two demographics of people. The first is people who have been exposed to the rabies virus, usually by being bitten by an infected animal.

The second group of people are those who work in high-risk occupations or those who have hobbies that place them at higher risk for contracting the rabies virus. People in high risk occupations include veterinarians, park rangers, animal control officers or soldiers in the military who travel overseas. The majority of human rabies cases occur in Asia and Africa, and are the result of being bitten by infected stray dogs. Soldiers on patrol often encounter these animals.

Risks

Just like any other medication, the rabies vaccine does carry the risk of having serious complications, though this is rare.

  • In 30-74 percent of cases, people experience discomfort at the injection site, such as itching, burning, soreness, swelling or redness. This is very common with many vaccines.
  • Between 5 and 40 percent of people who have received the rabies vaccine experience flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, headache, dizziness, muscle aches or abdominal pain.
  • Only about six percent of people who receive booster doses of the rabies vaccine experience hives, joint pain or fever.

There have been reports of other neurological conditions developing after the rabies vaccine, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, but this is so rare, it's difficult for researchers to determine if there is indeed a link.

It is important to disclose whether or not you have any immune system problems, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, or if you are currently on medication that suppress the immune system when receiving the rabies vaccine. The doctor will also need to know if you have ever had a life threatening reaction to vaccinations so that you can be monitored closely.

Side Effects

As with many vaccines, there are some side effects associated with the rabies vaccine. Most are very minor and will resolve themselves without medical intervention. They include:

  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Discomfort at the injection site
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain

Any serious, life-threatening side effects such as difficulty breathing, heart problems, swelling or difficulty swallowing should be reported to a doctor immediately.

After beginning the series of vaccines for rabies, the doctor will want to check the levels of antibodies in the blood at regular intervals as well as check on the person's overall health so it's important to keep all follow up appointments. Also, it's quite common for dizziness to occur after vaccination, so a person should be careful when walking and avoid driving or doing other tasks until the dizziness subsides.

While a series of injections may be unpleasant, they are truly necessary if a person is at risk of being exposed to the virus or has been exposed. When it comes to rabies, the result of not being vaccinated is much worse than enduring the vaccine.

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