In the UK, US and other developed countries, the word ‘rabies’ often evokes images of angry dogs foaming at the mouth. But gripping fear? Hardly.
That’s because this horrific disease is no longer endemic to much of the Western world. In the UK, there has been just one case of human rabies acquired in the country since 1902 – well over a century. Still, 59,000 people die from rabies every year, mostly in communities in Asia and Africa where poverty is rife. According to the World Health Organization, the disease still occurs in 150 countries and territories.
The vast majority of human rabies cases are caused by infected, domestic dogs. While rabies is 99.9 per cent fatal, it is also 100 per cent preventable.
This brings up an unconscionable disparity between the proverbial haves and have-nots: those countries that have the funds, political will, and access to resources to end the immense suffering rabies causes in both dogs and humans, and those that do not. As is the case with so many diseases, like dengue fever, the continued spread of rabies is largely the result of neglect.
Vaccinating a minimum of 70 per cent of dogs in an endemic area has shown to create ‘herd immunity’ and eliminate rabies in both dogs and humans. Human vaccines exist to stop rabies infection in its tracks (but must be given in a series of doses before symptoms appear). Coupled with the right policies and supporting infrastructure, an end to human deaths from canine rabies can happen.
Chances are, most of the people reading this post have not seen someone die from rabies. It is a particularly gruesome way to die. Patients with rabies often suffer from convulsions, delirium and aggressive behaviour. They lose the ability to swallow; the very sight of water can cause spasms and terror. Many are strapped to their beds to keep them from causing harm to themselves or others. Once symptoms show, death is imminent and inevitable within just a few days.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The End Rabies Now campaign, launched today, is showing the world that the tools exist to end human deaths from rabies. With the right support, partnerships and commitment, together we can end human deaths from rabies by 2030.
In South Africa, the KwaZulu-Natal province had been plagued by dog rabies over the past several decades. Launched in 2009, a pilot canine rabies elimination project has demonstrated that human rabies can be prevented through mass dog vaccination and sustained education. Because children are often the victims of dog bites and rabies infections, novel programmes are targeting young students to teach them about responsible pet ownership and proper wound care. On the island of Bohol, Philippines, the incorporation of rabies modules into the school curriculum reached all 962 public elementary schools, thanks to collaboration between the Departments of Health, Agriculture and Education.