The blog of Burness Communications

Challenging Rabies’ Killer Reputation

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Bloodsucking vampire bats and death by rabies. It’s the stuff of horror movies. Rabies has been thought of as one of the world’s deadliest infections, and exposure to it – usually through the bite of a rabid animal – an automatic death sentence unless immediately treated with a series of painful injections. But according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers have uncovered a pocket of people in a remote area of the Peruvian Amazon who show a natural resistance to the disease.  

Out of the 63 adults whose blood was tested, 10 percent showed protection against the disease – or “rabies virus neutralizing antibodies” – without any medical intervention or anti-rabies vaccine. The findings suggest that some people can develop immunity through repeated exposure to the virus from vampire bats. This ground-breaking discovery, published this month in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (a Burness client), is the first evidence of people with natural rabies immunity.

Authors Amy Gilbert, PhD and Brett Peterson, MD, told the BBC’s Science in Action that in the isolated Amazonian communities they studied, vampire bats are responsible for the majority of rabies outbreaks. While the bats usually steal their meals from livestock in the night, they’re also known to feast on humans, sinking their razor sharp teeth undetected into sleeping victims.

Gilbert told NPR’s Shots, "These people were exposed to the virus, but they never become ill. We think that their immune responses were able to clear the virus before it developed into [a full] infection.”

While human deaths from rabies infections are rare in the United States, experts estimate the disease kills 55,000 people worldwide annually. And it appears to be on the rise in Central and South America, China, the former Soviet Republics, and southern Africa.

With so much at stake, this study opens the door for the development of new, life-saving treatments for rabies infections that, one day, may help turn the tide against this deadly disease.

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