Animal bites are not something victims should take lightly. Even seemingly minor animal bites can quickly turn into a major health issue and possibly a threat to victims’ lives. This is particularly true if the animal in question was rabid.
Though the risk of contracting rabies in the United States is relatively low, health organizations across the country encourage bite victims to treat their wounds as if the offending animal did carry rabies. The World Health Organization, in particular, encourages victims and their health care teams to engage in post-exposure prophylaxis immediately after the event.
What is post-exposure prophylaxis?
Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, refers to the immediate treatment of a wound after a possible rabies exposure. PEP helps to prevent the rabies virus from entering the bloodstream and, subsequently, the central nervous system — an occurrence that results in imminent death. PEP consists of the following measures:
- Immediate and extensive cleansing and local treatment of the bite wound or scratch
- A course of proven and potent rabies vaccines that adhere to WHO standards
- If necessary, immediate administration of rabies immunoglobulin
Performing PEP immediately after an animal attack can help to significantly reduce the risk of rabies transmission, the development of symptoms and death. It is crucial, though, that victims adhere to WHO standards from the get-go. For instance, WHO states that victims should wash the wound for a minimum of 15 minutes with soap and water, povidone iodine or another anti-bacterial substance.
What level of PEP is necessary, and when?
The level of PEP victims should undergo depends largely on the exposure risk the animal presents. The CDC details exposure risk by animal type and what level of PEP is necessary for each.
If an otherwise healthy-appearing dog, cat or ferret bit a person, the exposure risk is minimal. In this case, the CDC recommends that the owner of the animal quarantine it for 10 days and observe it for symptoms. If symptoms do not develop, the animal and the bite victim are safe. However, if symptoms develop in the animal, the bite victim should receive an immediate rabies vaccine.
Per the CDC, individuals should regard wild animals such as skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats as rabid unless proven otherwise via laboratory tests. Bite victims of wild animals should receive immediate vaccination.
Bites by livestock require assessment on an individual basis. Bites from squirrels, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, mice, chipmunks and other small rodents almost never require rabies PEP.
Engaging in PEP post animal bite is not just smart — it could be life-saving. Victims should know when to seek help and from whom following an animal bite.