Driving Progress Towards Rabies Elimination

Rabies is a virus that is usually spread by the bite or scratch of an animal, most commonly dogs. Without early treatment, it is usually fatal, making rabies vaccinations in pets more important than ever.

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that can be transmitted from an unvaccinated animal to a human, usually through a bite or a scratch. Dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths, and are responsible for up to 99% of all rabies transmissions to humans. While advances in medicine, increased awareness, and the work of vaccination programmes have significantly reduced the incidence of rabies, vaccinating dogs is the most effective strategy for prevention. But with tens of thousands of rabies deaths occurring each year in over 150 countries worldwide, rabies is still a pressing concern, especially in rural areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.

“Dog-mediated human rabies can be eliminated by tackling the disease at its source: infected dogs. Making people aware of how to avoid the bites of rabid dogs, to seek treatment when bitten, and to vaccinate animals can successfully disrupt the rabies transmission cycle.” – World Health Organization

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Rabies is one of the neglected tropical diseases (NTD), which means it forms part of a group of parasitic and bacterial diseases that cause substantial illness for more than one billion people globally. Resulting in progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord of mammals, approximately 80 per cent of human cases of rabies occur in poverty-stricken rural areas without access to the vaccines, medication and new technologies available to avoid rabies and prevent the spread. 

After exposure to rabies, the virus has to travel through the body to the brain before humans and animals become symptomatic. This window between the exposure and the appearance of symptoms is called the incubation period, and it can last for weeks or even months. The incubation period may vary depending on the location of the exposure site (how far it is from the brain), the type of rabies virus, and any existing immunity. Once a person begins showing signs and symptoms of rabies, it’s generally too late to save the patient. For this reason, anyone who may have a risk of contracting rabies should receive rabies vaccinations for protection. 

A person who may have been exposed to rabies can usually be treated effectively if they seek help at once. Immediate, thorough wound washing with soap and water after contact with a rabid animal is critical, and can be the difference between life and death. The first symptoms of rabies are often similar to that of flu, and include general weakness, a fever or headache, and an unexplained tingling, pricking, or burning sensation at the wound (this is known as paraesthesia). As the virus spreads to the central nervous system, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops.

Current diagnostic tools are not advanced enough to detect rabies infection before the onset of symptoms, and unless the rabies-specific signs of hydrophobia (extreme or irrational fear of water) or aerophobia (an abnormal fear of drafts of air, gases, or airborne matter) are present, clinical diagnosis may be difficult.

The Forms of Rabies

There are two classic forms of rabies: furious (encephalitic) and paralytic. Each of these forms evolve through five general stages: incubation, prodromal, acute neurological, coma, and death.

Furious (encephalitic) rabies

This accounts for approximately 80 per cent of the total number of human cases, and manifests as signs of hyperactivity, hypersalivation, periods of agitation, hydrophobia (a fear of water), and sometimes aerophobia (a fear of drafts or fresh air). Death occurs after a few days due to cardio-respiratory arrest.

An infected dog may show extreme behavioural changes, such as restlessness, apprehension, and aggression. For example, a friendly or docile dog may become extremely irritable, and bite, snap or attack any form of stimulus, including other animals and humans. A fever, along with constant biting or licking at the wound, is common.

Paralytic rabies

This accounts for about 20 per cent of the total number of human cases. This form of rabies runs a less dramatic and usually longer course than the furious form. Muscles gradually become paralysed, starting at the site of the wound. A coma slowly develops, and eventually, death. The paralytic form of rabies is often misdiagnosed, which contributes to the under-reporting of the disease.

As the virus progresses, an infected dog may become hypersensitive to touch, light, and sound. It may eat unusual things and hide in dark places. Paralysis of the throat and jaw muscles may follow, resulting in the well-known symptom of foaming at the mouth. Other definitive signs of rabies include loss of appetite, weakness, seizures, and sudden death.

Are Your Pet’s Vaccinations Up-to-Date?

Vaccines help prepare the body’s immune system to fight the invasion of disease-causing germs. Vaccines contain antigens, which replicate the virus without actually causing the disease, stimulating a response from the immune system. If your pet is exposed to the real disease, its immune system is prepared to recognise and reduce the severity of the illness, or fight it off entirely.

The rabies virus is severe, and is predominantly fatal for unvaccinated pets. What’s more, many countries and governments require the euthanasia of unvaccinated animals exposed to potentially rabid ones because the virus is so hard to detect. That is why prevention methods like rabies vaccines are crucial. Investing in rabies vaccinations saves lives and strengthens both human and veterinary healthcare systems. This collaborative response through rabies programmes contributes to disease prevention and preparedness. Ensuring your pets get their annual inoculations is part of this collaboration. 

Lisa Wallace

Freelance Writer & EditorI’m a Cape Town-based writer working in education technology. I love people, but undoubtedly love felines more! I literally skip with glee when TEARS rope me in with a writing assignment – it’s a great pleasure to be able to use my craft to help their marketing team, in any small way I can.