What Is The Difference Between Rabies Vaccine And Immunoglobulin

Rabies, a deadly viral disease that affects mammals, is a significant health concern worldwide. Transmitted primarily through bites or scratches from infected animals, it poses a grave threat particularly in areas where dog vaccination programs are insufficient. Early intervention following exposure is crucial to prevent the disease from progressing to its invariably fatal neurological phase.

The primary medical interventions for rabies exposure are the rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulin. The rabies vaccine helps develop long-term immunity and is generally given before or shortly after exposure. In contrast, rabies immunoglobulin provides immediate, short-term protection by directly supplying antibodies against the virus, typically administered when exposure is confirmed or highly suspected.

Understanding the roles and differences between these treatments is essential for effective post-exposure management. The rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin work in tandem to prevent the virus from causing illness, but their applications, timing, and mechanisms of action vary significantly, highlighting the importance of tailored medical responses based on the nature of the exposure and the patient’s previous vaccination history.

Rabies Overview

Definition and Transmission

Rabies is an acute viral infection that primarily affects the central nervous system in mammals, including humans. It is caused by the rabies virus, a member of the Lyssavirus genus. The disease is typically transmitted through direct contact with the saliva of an infected animal, most commonly through bites. Infected bats, dogs, raccoons, and foxes are the most frequent transmitters of the virus to humans.

Symptoms and Progression

The progression of rabies can be broadly categorized into three stages: the incubation period, the acute phase, and the terminal phase. The incubation period varies from a few weeks to several months, depending on factors such as the location of the entry point and the amount of virus introduced.

  • Initial symptoms are often nonspecific and include fever, headache, and general weakness.
  • As the virus progresses to the acute phase, neurological symptoms develop, including insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water).
  • The terminal phase results in coma and ultimately, death, typically due to respiratory failure.
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Rabies Vaccine

Composition and Types

The rabies vaccine contains inactivated rabies virus. There are several types of rabies vaccines available, which are made using different technologies:

  • Cell culture vaccines: These are the most commonly used type of rabies vaccine. They are produced by growing the rabies virus in cultured cells of mammals and then inactivating the virus.
  • Vero cell vaccine: Made from an African green monkey kidney cell line.
  • Human diploid cell vaccine (HDCV): Grown in human cell lines.

How It Works

The rabies vaccine works by stimulating the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against the rabies virus, thereby providing the individual with active immunity. The vaccine primes the immune system to respond rapidly and effectively if exposed to the virus.

Usage and Dosage

  • The vaccine is administered as part of both pre-exposure prophylaxis and post-exposure prophylaxis.
  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis: Recommended for individuals at high risk of exposure, such as veterinarians and animal handlers. Typically given in three doses over a period of 28 days.
  • Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP): Administered immediately after exposure to rabies. The regimen consists of four doses over 14 days for vaccinated individuals and five doses for unvaccinated individuals.

Side Effects and Precautions

Side effects from the rabies vaccine are generally mild and can include:

  • Pain and swelling at the injection site
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches

Severe reactions are rare. The vaccine should be administered with caution to individuals with hypersensitivity to any component of the vaccine.

Rabies Immunoglobulin

Definition and Types

Rabies immunoglobulin (RIG) is a biologic product containing concentrated antibodies against the rabies virus. It provides immediate passive immunity to individuals who have been exposed to rabies. There are two main types of RIG:

  • Human Rabies Immunoglobulin (HRIG): Derived from the plasma of immunized humans.
  • Equine Rabies Immunoglobulin (ERIG): Derived from the plasma of immunized horses.

Mechanism of Action

RIG works by providing immediate passive immunity. The antibodies in RIG bind to and neutralize the rabies virus, preventing it from spreading to the central nervous system. This action helps to bridge the gap until the rabies vaccine induces an active immune response.

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When and How It Is Used

RIG is used exclusively for post-exposure prophylaxis in individuals who have not been previously vaccinated against rabies. It is administered once, at the beginning of exposure treatment, alongside the first dose of the rabies vaccine.

  • Administration: RIG is administered by infiltrating the full dose into and around the wound site, if anatomically feasible. Any remaining volume should be administered intramuscularly at a site distant from vaccine inoculation.

Side Effects and Safety Concerns

  • Common side effects include pain and tenderness at the injection site.
  • Allergic reactions are possible, especially with ERIG, which is derived from horse serum.
  • Pre-testing for hypersensitivity to horse-derived products is recommended before administering ERIG.

Key Differences

Vaccine vs. Immunoglobulin Purposes

The rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulin (RIG) serve complementary but distinct roles in rabies prevention and treatment. The vaccine is used both as a preventive measure before exposure and as part of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Its primary function is to stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against rabies, providing long-term immunity. In contrast, RIG provides immediate, short-term protection by supplying ready-made antibodies to neutralize the virus, used only in post-exposure situations.

Time of Administration

  • Rabies Vaccine: Administered before exposure in high-risk groups and as part of PEP regardless of prior vaccination status.
  • Rabies Immunoglobulin: Given only after exposure, ideally within hours and no later than seven days after the incident, to unvaccinated individuals or those with an uncertain vaccination history.

Mechanism Differences

The mechanisms through which the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin work are fundamentally different:

  • The vaccine activates the adaptive immune response, leading to the development of memory cells that will react to future exposures.
  • RIG bypasses the body’s natural immune response time by providing immediate passive immunity with antibodies that bind to and neutralize the rabies virus.

Efficacy in Prevention and Treatment

Both the vaccine and immunoglobulin are highly effective when administered correctly:

  • The vaccine is nearly 100% effective in preventing rabies when given before symptoms appear.
  • RIG, when combined with the vaccine, enhances protection by immediately neutralizing the virus until the vaccine-induced active immunity develops.

Clinical Applications

Scenarios for Vaccine Use

The rabies vaccine is used in various scenarios:

  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis for veterinarians, animal handlers, and travelers to high-risk areas.
  • Post-exposure prophylaxis for anyone exposed to potentially rabid animals, regardless of prior immunization status.
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Scenarios for Immunoglobulin Use

Rabies immunoglobulin is crucial in specific post-exposure scenarios:

  • For individuals with no prior vaccination upon exposure to a rabid or suspected rabid animal.
  • In severe exposures, such as multiple bites or bites to the head and neck, where rapid virus neutralization is critical.

Global Practices

Vaccine and Immunoglobulin Availability

The availability of the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin varies globally:

  • In many developed countries, both are readily available and stocked in most hospitals and clinics.
  • In developing regions, especially in rural areas with high rabies prevalence, access can be limited, impacting prompt treatment.

Differences in Treatment Protocols by Region

Treatment protocols for rabies exposure differ significantly around the world due to varying availability of medical resources, public health policies, and local rabies epidemiology:

  • Developed Countries: Generally follow the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines with immediate access to both vaccine and immunoglobulin.
  • Developing Countries: Challenges such as cost, supply shortages, and logistical issues can delay or prevent the administration of immunoglobulin and vaccines, leading to higher rates of rabies fatalities.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that primarily spreads through the saliva of infected animals, typically through bites. The virus impacts the central nervous system, leading to disease symptoms that are almost always fatal once they appear.

How does the rabies vaccine work?

The rabies vaccine activates the immune system to produce antibodies against the rabies virus, offering long-term protection. It is typically administered in a series of doses before or immediately after potential exposure.

Who should receive rabies immunoglobulin?

Rabies immunoglobulin is recommended for individuals who have been bitten or scratched by an animal suspected or confirmed to have rabies, particularly if the individual has not been previously vaccinated against rabies.

Can I get vaccinated after a rabies exposure?

Yes, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) includes receiving the rabies vaccine immediately after exposure to the virus. This is crucial for preventing the virus from progressing to a more severe stage.

What are the side effects of rabies treatment?

Both the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin can cause side effects such as soreness at the injection site, headache, and mild fever. However, the benefits of receiving these treatments after potential exposure far outweigh the risks.


The distinction between the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin is a cornerstone of effective post-exposure management for rabies, a disease with a nearly 100% fatality rate once symptoms manifest. Both treatments are pivotal in preventing the development of rabies after exposure but serve different purposes and are used under different circumstances.

Prompt and accurate administration of these interventions can mean the difference between life and death following rabies exposure. As such, public awareness and access to these treatments are critical, particularly in regions where rabies is common. The ongoing efforts to improve vaccination and immunoglobulin availability are vital in the global fight against rabies.

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