Rabies: Facts, not Fear

Published by Julia Rice
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The theme for World Rabies Day on the 28th of September 2021, Facts, not Fear, addresses the fears that COVID-19 has brought to light, and not just the fear of getting sick. What the pandemic has also raised is the many doubts and misconceptions about diseases, their spread, and about vaccinations in general. When it comes to rabies this is nothing new as fears, misconceptions and misinformation about the disease and its prevention dates back hundreds of years. It’s for this reason the theme for this year is focused on sharing facts about rabies, and not spreading fear about the disease by relying on misinformation and myths.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that rabies is estimated to cause 59 000 human deaths annually in over 150 countries, with 95% of cases occurring in Africa and Asia. Due to underreporting and uncertain estimates, this number is likely a gross underestimate. The burden of disease is disproportionately borne by rural poor populations, with approximately half of cases attributable to children under 15 years of age.

The organisation adds that rabies is a vaccine-preventable, zoonotic (transmissible to humans from animals), viral disease. Once clinical symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal. In up to 99% of cases, domestic dogs are responsible for rabies virus transmission to humans.

Dr. Guy Fyvie Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s Veterinary Advisor concurs. “Dog bites cause almost all human rabies cases in South Africa, and globally, with vaccinations of dogs being the most effective way to reduce the risk of this disease to both humans and dogs. Locally the disease is still very present, particularly in rural areas where many dogs are not vaccinated against the virus. In addition, rabies is commonly reported among stray or feral dogs and cats.”

The recently reported rabies outbreak in Nelson Mandela Bay is an alarming reminder that although the tried-and-tested strategies for controlling and preventing the disease exist, it is not always prioritised and invested in. The current outbreak is far worse than reflected by figures and is on course to be one of the worst the province has ever seen. State and private veterinarians, scrambling to contain the outbreak, say that the 70 confirmed cases recorded in the Bay so far are a mere drop in the ocean.

The Eastern Cape government is currently vaccinating in the Gqeberha area and Buffalo City Municipality. The government is also working with private veterinarians and animal welfare organisations to assist with the vaccination programme.

In South Africa it is law that pets are vaccinated against rabies. Dogs and cats should receive their first rabies vaccinations before three months of age. They’ll receive their second vaccination at three months, a third within 12 months, and annually thereafter.  

Rabies is spread to humans and other animals through contact with saliva or tissue of infected animals, scratches, bites, licks on broken skin and mucous membranes of the lips or eyes. Sadly, it is children who are especially at risk of encountering rabies infected animals, as they are more inclined to want to play with them. “Affected animals also lose their fear and will approach people and places they normally don’t. Parents should therefore keep a close eye on their children and discourage them in all circumstances from interacting with feral, stray or unfamiliar animals that may be acting abnormally,” Dr. Fyvie explains.

He provides some tips on how to keep you and your family safe from rabies:

  • Never take a chance. If bitten, scratched or in contact with their saliva, assume the worst and follow the treatment protocol as prescribed by the healthcare workers. There is simply nothing that can be done once the symptoms present themselves.
  • Ensure your pets’ rabies vaccinations are up to date and if you are in an immediate outbreak area, have your pet revaccinated. If you can’t provide proof of a pet’s vaccination status, they may be euthanised, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms or not
  • Never let your pets roam the streets. 
  • Do not let your pets interact with unknown animals. An animal can become infected by fighting with another animal, even over a fence. 
  • Do not approach stray dogs or cats, especially if they are showing abnormal behaviour, such as being aggressive or very docile. 
  • If you suspect an animal is infected, contact the health authorities immediately.  Do not try to restrain the animal yourself.
  • Donate to a welfare organisation that conducts rabies vaccination outreach programmes. The higher the vaccinated animal population, the less chance there is of an outbreak. 

“As pet parents we should all be doing our part in helping to raise awareness and reduce rabies fatalities in South Africa. If not dealt with effectively, rabies could once again become a serious public health concern,” concludes Dr Fyvie.  

Julia Rice

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