World Rabies Day 2019

The theme for this year’s World Rabies Day, taking place on 28 September, focusses on vaccination as the foundation of rabies prevention and control efforts – ‘Rabies: Vaccinate to Eliminate’. Dog bites cause almost all human rabies cases in South Africa, and globally, vaccinations are the most effective way to reduce the risk of this disease, says Dr Guy Fyvie, Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s Nutritional Advisor.

The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) latest Communicable Diseases Communiqué confirms eight South African cases of human rabies in 2019 to date. These cases were from three provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo. In addition, two deaths were classified as probable rabies cases, one from KwaZulu-Natal Province and the other from the Eastern Cape. Globally an estimated 55,000 deaths occur per year due to canine rabies.

South Africa’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development holds regular vaccination clinics in key areas that have rabies outbreaks or scares.  This is predominantly in the eastern part of the country. However, Dr Fyvie explains, it remains our responsibility to have our dogs and cats vaccinated against the disease.

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.  In South Africa it is law that pets are vaccinated against rabies.

 “In South Africa, the disease is still very present, particularly in our rural areas where many dogs are not vaccinated against the virus. In addition, rabies is commonly reported among stray or feral dogs and cats.”  Sadly, it is children who are especially at risk of encountering animals infected with rabies, as they are more inclined to want to play with and pet 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. 

According to the NICD, 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. The majority of human exposure to rabies in South Africa is linked to dogs.

If you suspect that you have been in contact with an infected animal, seek immediate medical attention. You should immediately flush and wash the wound warm water and disinfectant or just warm water if contact with eyes). Advise the doctor of your suspicion, as they will not only notify the relevant authorities but will also administer the correct treatment protocol.  Unfortunately, if you wait to get medical attention and the rabies symptoms set in the disease will be fatal.

Dr. Fyvie provides some tips on how to keep you and your family safe from rabies:

  • Children under the age of 15 make up 40% of the reported cases of being bitten by a suspected rabies-infected animal. It is important to warn your children of the risks of interacting with strays and pets that are not theirs or that are acting differently.
  • Never take a chance. If bitten, scratched or in contact with their saliva, assume the worst and follow the treatment protocol. 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, and your pet encounters a rabid animal, it will be euthanised regardless of whether or not your pet is showing symptoms.
  • 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.

Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease, yet in Africa, Asia and Latin America there has been a recent increase in human rabies deaths. If not dealt with effectively, rabies could once again become a serious public health pandemic.

“As pet parents we should all be doing our part in helping to raise awareness and reduce rabies fatalities in South Africa,” concludes Dr Fyvie. 

Date Published: 27 September 2019