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The Terrifying Science of Rabies

Jun 24, 2017 10:29 AM EDT

You've probably heard about the brave Maine woman who went jogging, crossed paths with a rabid raccoon, and won.

Rachel Borch, 21, was out on a jog in the woods when a snarling raccoon blocked her path. She knew immediately that the animal had rabies. The raccoon attacked and bit down on her thumb and would not let go. Her adrenaline and killer instincts took over, and she rolled like a superhero and drowned the animal in a nearby puddle.

Point humans.

 ran almost a mile out of the woods to get help and went to the emergency room where she got treatment. The girl killed a raccoon with her bare hands like a modern day Davey Crockett. Rumor has it she made a hat out of the raccoon skin and had a half dozen marriage proposals from backwoods Mainers by sundown, all of whom she likewise drowned in puddles.

The sensational story and the comedy that comes with it overshadows the very serious problem of rabies. Rabies can be deadly. And the death from rabies is not pleasant. An excerpt from Chris Obenschain at describes what the death from rabies would feel like: 

It's difficult to breathe. A thick, frothy pool of saliva in your mouth swishes unpleasantly back and forth across your tongue. You would like to drink it -- at this point any sort of liquid, even warm spit, might help ease your maddening thirst and dehydration -- but the muscles in your throat won't allow you to swallow. As you lie there, partially paralyzed, sick from fever and thirst, each labored breath becomes a chore. Frequent hallucinations and your minds growing instability make it clear that the end is coming soon.

All this because you got bit by a raccoon on the thumb? YES.

Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. Once the virus gets into the spinal cord, it quickly enters the brain where it starts replicating itself inside the brain's nerve cells, killing them. After the brain, the virus heads to the salivary glands and makes them produce excessive saliva. It is important for the virus to do this because the saliva is the way it will get passed on to the next host. 

There are two physical variations of rabies. The most common form is the "mad dog" form which is what most people think of. This form of rabies comes with increased agitation, aggression and hallucinations. There is also a "dumb" form of rabies that has more peaceful symptoms. The victim will feel lethargic and slowly slip into a paralysis then to a coma, and then usually dies due to a respiratory paralysis. 

So mad dog or dumb, the end is the same.

Rabies is a picky disease. It occur only in mammals but is usually not found in mice, squirrels or rabbits. The reason for this is that rabies is spread through the saliva of another animal. These are all small animals and so it is not likely that they would survive any attack by another rabid animal. Not all small mammals are as fortunate. Woodchucks, bats and groundhogs have been known to carry the disease, but raccoons are most common. The disease can lay dormant in humans for years before it shows symptoms.

If you ever get bitten by any wild animal, go directly to the emergency room for a rabies shot. Treated early, it is almost always curable. Treated late, it never is.

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