Rabies Is Incurable And Fatal, Yet Easily Preventable: Why Isn’t It A Priority?

Rabies is one of the most lethal viruses known to humans, and it kills around 189 people every day. So why doesn’t society hear more about this preventable and treatable disease?

The Huffington Post reports that rabies kills almost 100 percent of victims who don’t receive the vaccine. According to the Huffington Post, humanity has both the knowledge and practical means to eradicate this shocking disease, but 69,000 people still die from this preventable disease every year.

Rabies is a terrifying disease. It is transmitted to humans when they’ve been bitten by an infected animal, which is very often a dog. Typically, it takes somewhere between one and three months after infection for the person to show symptoms, but by the time their symptoms become obvious, their death is inevitable. The end of the victim’s life is swift and shocking. They suffer swelling of the brain, which leads to anxiety, hallucinations, then full-blown delirium.

Studies of rabies have shown that eliminating this disease would be cost-effective. Rabies alone results in an economic loss of $8.6 billion annually, but eliminating it in Africa would cost around $1 billion, which is just one-fifth of what is spent on malaria control each year. In addition, experiments have shown that eliminating rabies in humans is a simple process. The disease would disappear if 70 percent of the dog population were vaccinated in areas where rabies is endemic.

This begs the question: why hasn’t this already been done? Perhaps the answer to this question is obvious: it’s not a priority for the West because rabies kills people (almost exclusively) in developing countries.

Once someone has been exposed to the rabies virus, they have 10 days to get the vaccine. Yet for people that can afford the vaccine, it’s 100 per cent effective. A study in Kenya recently found that victims who had been bitten were paying up to $500 for treatment, which is almost half the average per-capita income. India accounts for 35 percent of rabies deaths worldwide, while 36 percent of deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Felix Lankester is a clinical assistant professor at the Paul G Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University. In his opinion, the issue is complicated because rabies falls between government ministries for both animal and human health.

“Health globally has been divided into human health and animal health, even though 60 to 70 percent of human diseases come from animals. Dogs transmit [rabies], so agriculture ministries need to intervene. Yet because it’s people that suffer, it’s health ministries that benefit from the reduced cost of the human disease.”

Lancaster said that it’s not easy coordinating a veterinary response to a human health project. His own project, the Serengeti Health Initiative, was responsible for the elimination of canine rabies in the Serengeti in Tanzania. Unfortunately, the health systems dealing with this cross-sector problem are already underfunded and overburdened, which creates a challenge for these health ministries.

Kenya has now launched a national strategy to become rabies-free by the year 2030. Now, Tanzania has followed suit and recently developed its own elimination strategy.

According to Felix Lankester, rabies is the “low-hanging fruit of disease control” because it’s possible to eliminate and it’s cost-effective. And, says Lankester, it’s the right thing to do. The world’s less-developed nations need to finally be free of this horrendous disease.

The Selma Times reported that a group of veterinarians in Selma want the city and county to enforce the rabies vaccination law in Alabama. Doctor Francis Kendrick is the owner of Valley Creek Veterinary Hospital, and she was also the rabies officer for Dallas County last year. She said that owners of dogs, cats, and ferrets are required by state law to have their pets vaccinated, but many people in Dallas County and Selma are not complying.

“The law is already on the books. The fact is we have not had the law enforced in so many years. There are a lot of people that are not compliant.”

The rabies officer for Dallas County this year is Doctor Mike Wells, and he’s also pushing the effort.

“We know that we’re not going to ever vaccinate all the pets in Dallas County. I would say we don’t vaccinate 20 to 30 percent of the pets in Dallas County. There are dogs and cats running everywhere. If you don’t vaccinate a certain percentage of them, you don’t really have a barrier against rabies because if it ever gets started, it can go right through the entire population.”

Records from the Alabama Department of Public Health show that there have already been seven cases of rabies in 2017, and there were 77 cases in 2016.

“Protecting your pet is essentially protecting yourself. Rabies is an incurable disease. It is a fatal disease. Pets every year in the state of Alabama die from rabies. We have a lot of wildlife in our area that carry rabies. We see this every year. We see bats and raccoons. Foxes have been rabies positive animals.”

Kendrick is hoping that better law enforcement, where the city and county write citations forcing people to have their pets vaccinated, will help enforce the already-written law. In the past, this responsibility has fallen on the rabies officer.

“It didn’t make sense to me why veterinarians were supposed to be the ones that were the enforcers of the law. That’s just not a well-received program. Why couldn’t we get law enforcement that already exist to be the ones that enforce the law?”

Kendrick said she hopes this will all be worked out by springtime, at which time there will be rabies clinics going around the county allowing people to vaccinate their pets at a reduced cost.

[Featured Image by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]