Rabies: a killer virus that should be eradicated

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 28/04/2015 | 00:00

Vaccinating dogs against rabies can eliminate the virus globally.Pic: Dr Kate Hampson 2015
Vaccinating dogs against rabies can eliminate the virus globally.Pic: Dr Kate Hampson 2015

Last week, over 800 migrants from Africa drowned when their ship sank while trying to reach Europe.

This horrific event brought the number who have died in this way to 1700 this year, a shockingly high figure.

Why mention such facts in a pet column? It's because I want to put another figure into perspective. Around the world, almost 5000 people die of rabies every month, or 59000 per year. Yet nobody talks about this.

Why are we so upset by deaths in one sphere of life while remaining insensitive to such a high number of preventable deaths by a different cause?

There are three reasons. First, the deaths from rabies happen in far-off countries. Second, most of the people dying are poor, so even in their own countries, they are low on the list of priorities. And third, most of the deaths happen to children, the most powerless, least vocal members of human society

The most frustrating aspect about this situation is that this is a problem that can be solved. Rabies is much easier to fix than the issue of economic migrants.

How can you stop people wanting to flee poverty? People will always want to move from the poorer countries of northern Africa into the relatively wealthy sanctuary of Europe. The only time this will change is when the wealth gradient changes, with Africa growing more wealthy and Europe becoming poorer. Until this happens, people will continue to leave Africa, desperate to find a better economic outlook elsewhere. This challenging fact doesn't stop politicians having high profile meetings that "attempt to solve the migration problem."

Meanwhile, few politicians address the rabies issue, despite the ease with which it could be fixed. Domestic dogs cause over 99% of human deaths by rabies. Many countries in the world, including most of Europe, Australasia and America, have eliminated rabies from the dog (and human) population, via the systematic vaccination of the national dog population against rabies. It is cheap to do this: when purchased in high volume, the cost of a rabies vaccination for a dog can be as little as 20c. If 70% of a local dog population is vaccinated, a barrier of healthy immune dogs is created, preventing any outbreak of rabies from spreading. When this is achieved, the number of canine rabies cases decreases, and when rabies in dogs is eliminated, the threat to humans is removed.

The overall economic cost of rabies is estimated as €8 billion per year, while only 1.5% of this sum is spent on dog vaccinations. The facts speak for themselves: in countries which invest higher sums of money into rabies vaccination of dogs, the incidence of rabies in humans is lower. And countries with higher numbers of humans dying of rabies nearly always have a low incidence of vaccination of dogs against rabies.

Meanwhile, relatively high sums of money - around 20% of the total cost of rabies - are spent in the medical sphere, giving post-dog-bite injections to humans in an effort to prevent them from going on to develop the disease. It's easy to understand why this money is spent: if any of us were bitten by a dog in a rabies endemic area, we'd be happy to pay a large sum of money if we believed that it would prevent us from going on to develop a fatal disease. But when you look at the figures from a distance, you can see that it's all wrong. If the percentages were rejigged, with a much higher spend on dog vaccination, rabies would soon be eliminated, and there would then be no need to spend so much money on humans who've been bitten by dogs.

This has been proven on the ground. In 1983, the countries of South America committed to a policy of mass dog vaccination: dog rabies cases in the region fell from a peak of 25,000 in 1977 to just 196 in 2011, and human cases fell by 96% to only 15 across the whole continent.

Like many societal problems, this is a political issue. The funding for dog rabies vaccine campaigns tends to come out of poorly resourced animal health budgets. It is relatively easy for politicians to commit to spending money on human health but they are far less willing to spend money on dog vaccinations. There's no doubt that in the long term - e.g. over twenty years - there would be huge savings by dealing effectively with rabies by vaccinating dogs. But few politicians work with such far-sightedness. Spending money on dog vaccines does not win short-term elections, so it doesn't happen.

I know some readers will be thinking "if dogs are such a problem, why not just get rid of them from the streets in rabies areas", and indeed, mass culling of stray dogs has been attempted in the past. Such efforts have been proven not to work: local people detest the idea of innocent dogs being killed, so they hide them. The result is that it is impossible to effectively "cleanse" an area of dogs. Dog vaccination, in contrast, is widely accepted and it has been shown to work.

We can eliminate rabies from this planet in the next twenty years if we want to. Why don't we just do it?

For more information about what you can do to help, visit www.rabiesalliance.org or see www.petethevet.com.

Wexford People

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