September 28, 2014 was World Rabies Day and this year’s theme, coming Together Against Rabies, was appropriate given the fact that organizations around the world are, in fact, coming together in efforts to eliminate rabies. Rabies, a deadly virus, is spread to humans through contact with infected animals. Annually, approximately 40,000 Americans are exposed to rabies but the number of deaths is infinitesimal when compared to the more than 55,000 rabies related deaths in other parts of the world.
In the U.S., it is reported that the majority of animals infected by rabies are wild animals like bats, raccoons, and skunks. Humans are normally exposed by domestic animals who have been bitten by their undomesticated counterparts. Surprisingly though many people in the U.S. associate rabies with dog bites, cats are actually more likely to carry the disease than dogs. Cats usually have contact with humans and with the wild animals that spread the rabies virus. Cat owners are also less likely than dog owners to take their cats to the veterinarian where they can get annual vaccinations against rabies.
People in places like Africa, Asia and India generally contract the illness from unvaccinated stray dogs. In fact, about 33 percent of deaths in India are caused by rabies. In more advanced countries, bats are more likely to spread the disease. People in poorer countries are dying because they may not be able to afford the vaccine or because they are largely uneducated regarding the prompt treatment needed to prevent the disease.
A person infected with rabies will generally experience flu-like symptoms and the time it takes for these symptoms to manifest can vary. Fever and a prickly sensation at the site where the skin is broken can occur within a few months or within a week. There have also been cases where the symptoms took as look as a year to appear. It is believed that the timeframe is based on how long the virus takes to invade the central nervous system.
After a few days, the person begins to experience more severe symptoms including hallucinations, jerky movements, anxiety and paralysis in some body parts. They may be unable to swallow food, be afraid of water and have an urge to bite. Eventually the brain becomes inflamed and the person dies. Ironically, says Guy Palmer, Director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University, “Rabies is 100 percent preventable. People shouldn’t be dying at all.”
The good news is that a plan to eliminate rabies on a worldwide basis has been developed. The vaccinations needed to stop the spread of the rabies virus have long been available but there has never been a collaborative worldwide effort. According to Palmer, there is convincing evidence that dogs that are vaccinated, greater than 98 percent of the global rabies health burden would be eliminate.
The cost of eliminating rabies around the world could be astronomical. In the U.S. alone the annual cost is more than $300 million. Experts agree that a systemized approach to vaccinating dogs in undeveloped countries could prevent unnecessary deaths in many parts of the world. There must, however, be serious conversation not only about cooperation and collaboration in the effort eliminate rabies around the world, but also about funding the effort.
By Constance Spruill