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Ante Mortem Testing

The state health department should always be contacted before collecting and submitting samples to the Rabies Laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). After consulting with the state health department, any remaining questions can be directed to the Rabies Section at the CDC by calling 404-639-1050. The following instructions will guide you in collecting samples for rabies testing.

Patient History

Please complete the associated form detailing the clinical history of the patient and provide the name and phone number of the physician who should be contacted with the test results. This form must accompany any samples sent to the Rabies Laboratory at the CDC.

Possible Human Rabies - Patient Information Form [PDF - 279 KB]

Antemortem Samples

All samples should be considered as potentially infectious. Test tubes and other sample containers must be securely sealed (tape around the cap will insure that the containers do not open during transit). If immediate shipment is not possible, samples should be stored frozen at -20oC or below. Samples should be shipped frozen on dry ice by an overnight courier in water-tight primary containers and leak-proof secondary containers that meet the guidelines of the International Air Transport Association. The rabies laboratory at CDC should be telephoned (404-639-1050) at the time of shipment and given information on the mode of shipment, expected arrival time, and courier tracking number.

All four samples listed below are required to provide an antemortem rule out of rabies. A rule out cannot be provided if all samples are not collected.


Using a sterile eyedropper pipette, collect saliva and place in a small sterile container which can be sealed securely. No preservatives or additional material should be added. Laboratory tests to be performed include detection of rabies RNA (by reverse transcription and polymerase chain reaction, RT/PCR, of extracted nucleic acids) and isolation of infectious virus in cell culture. Tracheal aspirates and sputum are not suitable for rabies tests.

Neck Biopsy

A section of skin 5 to 6 mm in diameter should be taken from the posterior region of the neck at the hairline. The biopsy specimen should contain a minimum of 10 hair follicles and be of sufficient depth to include the cutaneous nerves at the base of the follicle. Place the specimen on a piece of sterile gauze moistened with sterile water and place in a sealed container. Do not add preservatives or additional fluids. Laboratory tests to be performed include RT/PCR and immunofluorescent staining for viral antigen in frozen sections of the biopsy.

Serum and cerebral spinal fluid (CSF)

At least 0.5 ml each of serum and CSF should be collected; no preservatives should be added. Do not send whole blood. If no vaccine or rabies immune serum has been given, the presence of antibody to rabies virus in the serum is diagnostic and tests of CSF are unnecessary. Antibody to rabies virus in the CSF, regardless of the immunization history, suggests a rabies virus infection. Laboratory tests for antibody include indirect immunofluorescence and virus neutralization.

Brain biopsy

The rarity of rabies and the lack of an effective treatment make the collection of a brain biopsy for antemortem testing unwarranted; however, biopsy samples negative for herpes encephalitis should be tested for evidence of rabies infection. The biopsy is placed in a sterile sealed container; do not add preservatives or additional fluids. Laboratory tests to be performed include RT/PCR and immunofluorescent staining for viral antigen in touch impressions.

Postmortem Samples

In certain cases, human samples may need to be tested for rabies postmortem. Consult with the state health department before shipping any samples to the Rabies Laboratory at the CDC. Fresh tissue samples from the central nervous system (brain) should be submitted.

Postmortem diagnosis of rabies is made by immunofluorescent staining of viral antigen in touch impressions of brain tissue. Portions of the medulla (brain stem), the cerebellum, and the hippocampus should be frozen and shipped on dry ice to a public health laboratory or the CDC laboratory. Preservation of tissues by fixation in formalin is not recommended if rabies diagnosis is desired.


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