The theme of this year’s World Rabies Day is Facts, Not Fear. Every year, rabies kills 59,000 people – and millions of dogs, either directly through the disease or from the indiscriminate culling prompted by fear of the disease. Rabies has also decimated numbers of endangered canid species, such as the Ethiopian wolf. And yet all these deaths are unnecessary, as rabies is a preventable disease, with safe and effective vaccines for both dogs and people.
In 2015, the global goal was set of eliminating human dog-mediated rabies deaths by 2030. We’re only nine years from that date, and with almost 60,000 deaths a year, the ‘Zero by 30’ goal seems a difficult one to achieve, but programmes across the world are working hard to educate communities and promote vaccinations.
Although rabies is found on every continent, except Antarctica, it is well controlled or even eliminated in most developed countries. Today over 95% of human victims are from Africa and Asia.
Following exposure to the virus, symptoms can appear within a few days to over a year, though the average is within 12 weeks. The first symptoms are similar to those of the flu, with delirium, abnormal behaviour and hallucinations occurring as the disease progresses, as well as the famed hydrophobia and foaming at the mouth (due to the paralysis of the muscles responsible for swallowing).
Once symptoms manifest, rabies is 99.9% fatal with only a handful of survivors ever recorded. However, if people are given a course of vaccinations immediately after exposure to a rabid animal and before symptoms become evident, the disease can be prevented.
For dogs, the situation is just as grim. Countless animals die after suffering the horrific clinical symptoms of rabies. Dogs also suffer from a second tragedy: fear of rabies transmission from dogs regularly prompts dog culls in which animals are killed indiscriminately. This creates a territorial vacuum and encourages new dogs to move into the area, before the process starts again. World experts agree that dog culling does not stop rabies.
Canine vaccination is the key to preventing the disease in humans by stopping the disease at its source. The immunity of vaccinated dogs (and other domestic animals) also offers a barrier of protection between potentially rabid wild animals and people.
For more information about rabies and World Rabies Day, visit www.rabiesalliance.org