I just learned that World Rabies Day was Sept. 28. While we missed recognizing this specific date, the topic of rabies is one that should be visited.
I was surprised to learn that every nine minutes, someone in the world dies from rabies. It is estimated that almost 59,000 people die each year from rabies. While most cases of rabies occur in Africa, India and parts of Asia, every year between 30,000 and 60,000 people in the U.S. are exposed to this deadly disease and will receive the post-exposure treatment for prevent the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rabies is a preventable disease of mammals and is transmitted from the bite or scratch of an animal that has rabies. The virus is actually contained in the infected animal’s saliva. Wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, coyotes, bats and foxes are the most frequently reported animals with rabies in the U.S. In developing countries of Africa and Southeast Asia, stray dogs are the predominate source of rabies for people.
Rabies is actually a virus that infects the central nervous system and, left untreated, will go to the brain and eventually lead to death. According to the Mayo Clinic, once a person begins showing signs and symptoms of rabies, the disease is almost always fatal. It is for this reason that anyone who may have a risk for contracting rabies receives a vaccine.
According to Elizabeth Bunting, a wildlife veterinarian with Cornell University, people make mistakes when interacting with wildlife that could potentially expose them to rabies. First, people tend to believe a rabid animal will be foaming at the mouth, attack and bite, when they may actually display a range of symptoms from aggression to paralysis. It is not possible to tell if the animal is rabid or not without testing. Stay away from any adult wild animals that you can approach. A healthy wild animal will not want human interaction.
Treating for possible rabies exposure is expensive. It is the health department's responsibility to evaluate possible human exposure, which involves staff time and money. Reducing the number of possible human exposures would reduce the estimated annual costs by $245 million to $520 million dollars each year.
In the U.S., rabies is controlled with the strict dog vaccination program already in place. In addition, good coverage of potential exposures is monitored by both health departments and medical facilities. However, in developing countries, dogs are not being vaccinated and potential exposures are not treated with the necessary vaccines. In some countries, dogs that are vaccinated wear a red collar to indicate they have been vaccinated. In New York, when we vaccinate our dogs against rabies, we receive a tag that each dog should wear on their collar. Proof of vaccination is also required when our dogs are registered each year.
Children are more often affected by rabies exposure than adults. Children are naturally more curious as they explore the world and may interact with animals. While we want our children to explore nature and all the wonders it holds, they need to be supervised until they are old enough to understand the need to leave wild animals alone and in the wild.
Remember that rabies can be transferred from an infected animal to another through the transmission of saliva from a bite or scratch. Rabies is preventable when we work with public health officials, veterinarians and doctors. When there is a concern of possible exposure to rabies from an animal that has bitten us, our pets or livestock, take it seriously and follow up with the appropriate professional.
There are several international groups, including the World Health Organization, focused on reducing rabies in humans in developing countries with a goal of zero rabies deaths by 2030. Let’s do our part by keeping our dogs (and cats, too) vaccinated and keeping wildlife wild.