September 28th is World Rabies Day! This day of observance was created by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) to spread awareness about the disease and educate others on how to prevent it. This year’s theme is Rabies “Share the message. Save a life.”
Rabies is a preventable viral disease that affects only mammals and is transmitted through the saliva, cerebral spinal fluid or brain tissue of an infected host. If untreated, rabies is fatal. Most commonly, the disease is transmitted through a bite, but can also be transmitted if the infectious material gets directly into the eyes, nose, mouth or an open wound. Rabies infects the central nervous system and causes a “disease of the brain.” Early symptoms of rabies can include fever, headache and fatigue – symptoms that are similar to many other illnesses such as the flu or common cold. However, as the disease develops, symptoms specific to rabies begin to appear: insomnia, paralysis, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia. The disease typically results in death within a few days after the onset of these rabies-specific symptoms.
In the United States, reported rabies cases have shifted from mainly domestic animals to predominantly wildlife animal reports. Specifically, more than 90% of all rabies cases today are from wild animals. In addition, the number of rabies-related deaths in humans has decreased dramatically from 100 cases per year in the 1900’s to 1-2 per year. Our efforts to encourage prophylaxis after an exposure and the effectiveness of the vaccine have proven successful in decreasing rates of rabies in the United States.
However, rabies is found on every continent other than Antarctica and some continents struggle with the burden of rabies more than others. The overall death rate for rabies around the world is estimated at a staggering 59,000 people a year. Countries in Africa and Asia are affected by rabies disproportionately than the other continents and almost half of the victims of rabies in these countries are children younger than 15 years.
A main reason that such a young population affected is due to uncontrolled canine rabies in these countries. Canine rabies – which spreads from dog to dog – is actually the cause of 98% of human deaths globally. In the United States it has been eliminated because many people keep their animals vaccinated to prevent this type of rabies from re-entering our environment. However, in many other countries, stray dogs roam around neighborhoods freely and when they contract rabies, they likely spread it to many people (primarily children) they come in contact with. Scientists predict that if 70% of dogs are vaccinated for rabies in an area, rabies can be controlled and human deaths will decrease.
Haiti has the highest number of human deaths by rabies – around 2 deaths per week. CDC and the Government of Haiti have started an animal rabies surveillance program (2013) to detect and have situational awareness of which regions of the country are greatly affected by rabies. In 2015, CDC also evaluated how many dogs were vaccinated in the country and found that only 45% of dogs received their shots. In addition, the total amount of dogs in the country was actually double the number they initially predicted. After these studies were done, the CDC helped train animal health workers to conduct large dog vaccination campaigns and continue rabies prevention efforts. Many children started bringing their puppies to the events and were proud of their certificates ensuring their dogs had been vaccinated. It is CDC’s (along with the Government of Haiti) hope to reach a 70% vaccination rate among their dog population and sustain it for five years – long enough to create a ripple of effect among human deaths due to rabies.
CDC has helped establish similar campaigns in other countries. For example, they have trained animal control officers in Ethiopia to capture, vaccinate and release stray dogs as well as monitor human exposure cases and keep track of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatments. In Vietnam, while there is not a high human death rate for rabies – 91 per year, the government spends an extraordinary amount of money on expensive PEP. It is much more feasible to vaccinate dogs than provide the costly post exposure treatment – $1.32 dollars vs one course of PEP at $153 dollars. The CDC has helped support Vietnam in improving their rabies surveillance and coming up with new approaches to vaccinate their dogs and achieve the 70% canine vaccination goal.
The World Health Organization has been having meetings to discuss ways to eliminate rabies in Africa too. This past month, representatives from 24 countries in Africa met in Johannesburg to share information from a study they conducted regarding rabies. The representatives pitched ideas for implementing the new recommendations for human rabies vaccines and how to improve surveillance dog vaccination campaigns. These meetings are exciting as they provide new insight for the global plan to achieve zero deaths from rabies.
Single countries like the Philippines, have proved to be great examples for national campaigns organized against rabies. The Philippines holds a nationwide World Rabies Day celebration as part of its educational outreach campaigns each year. The celebration has continued to grow yearly as more and more events are added to the agenda. It’s success emphasizes the importance of a program that is led and supported by their own national government and how the topic of rabies elimination is valued by the country’s leaders.
Overall, targeting the countries where rabies poses a significant risk and coming up with goals, campaigns and new tactics to eliminate rabies are substantial goals for the globe and many lives will be impacted by the CDC, the WHO and its many public health partners. But what can YOU do on a personal level that can also impact many lives? Here’s a quick checklist to follow:
- To start, you should always take your pet to the vet to get vaccinated for rabies regularly.
- Spaying or neutering your pet can also help with decreasing the amount of stray and potentially dangerous animals into your pet’s environment.
- Always supervise your pet when they are outdoors. Wild high risk animals for rabies such as raccoons, coyotes or opossums can be in your backyard.
- Lastly, avoid contact with wild or unfamiliar animals (including dead animals). As tempting as it is to pet a stray cute kitten or dog, it is in your best interest to not feed or handle them.
- Continue sharing the message and saving lives! Happy World Rabies Day!