Several years ago I wrote an article on Rabies (Merced Sun Star, June 2014), a viral disease carried from animal to animal and sometimes from animal to human. For both animals and humans the disease is considered a death sentence. I recently came upon a series of articles in a veterinary journal and was sad to learn that the disease is still a serious threat in much of the world and that approximately 60,000 people die from this disease every year.
Why do I take up the story again? Because it deserves to be heard and, most importantly, it is still a threat to you and your loved ones. It’s a very real threat if you enjoy travelling to out-of-the-way places.
Today is World Rabies Day. This day is sponsored by an alliance among the World Health Organization and many other organizations working towards the goal of eradicating Rabies deaths in people and animals by the year 2030. They are joined by the One Health Initiative, a group dedicated to promoting increased communication and joint action between physicians and veterinarians globally through the integration of human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental science. Rabies is cited as a classic example of what “One Health” is all about, as the control of rabies in animals has reduced the death toll in people from that disease. Together, we can make a difference.
Rabies is a slow-moving viral disease. It can affect any mammal, but is usually spread from one carnivore to another as the virus is passed in saliva by bites through the skin. Infection after contact with infected saliva on an open wound is a possible, though unlikely, mode of transmission. Once a new victim has been bitten, the virus slowly makes its way into the nerves and through the nervous system to the brain. This can take two weeks to two months or longer. By the time the rabies virus is present in the saliva, death is near. It is for this reason that when an unknown dog bites a person the dog will be quarantined for two weeks. Two weeks is long enough to monitor the dog. If rabid, the animal will die. The dog’s brain can then be tested for rabies virus and the bitten person still has ample time to receive the anti-rabies protective vaccine.
Rabies has been found in the wildlife in and around Merced County. It is endemic in area bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. You, the pet owner, have set up a terrific protective line of defense by the simple stratagem of vaccinating your pet dogs and cats. It is believed that by vaccinating 80 percent of a populations’ pets an effective barrier is created to protect people against exposure to the disease. In the United States more rabid cats have been reported to the Center for Disease Control than dogs for several years. Vaccinate your cats! Vaccinate all dogs and cats older than 3 months of age. Keep them up-to-date.
There are a few island communities which have managed to keep rabies out or eradicate its presence, including Hawaii, Great Britain, and Japan. You cannot easily take a dog or cat into those islands. I applaud their high security. The regions most likely to have rabid animals that endanger humans are underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa.
For the traveler to a foreign country, be aware that the dogs roaming the streets may be high risk for encountering rabies. The unsuspecting traveler may admire a puppy, letting it lick their hands. Food you carry could attract attention from a roving dog. Many of these countries have inadequate medical services for diagnosing rabies or offering post-exposure prophylaxis (prevention/ PEP) services. Rabies prevention is not universally available. The more exotic your outpost, the higher the risk of encountering rabies. Of the 60,000 people who die every year, nearly every single case (99 percent) of human death started with a bite from an infected dog.
Whether at home or travelling, camping for a weekend or following your dreams of adventure exploring a foreign land, please take precautions. Enjoy wildlife, but don’t treat or keep wildlife as pets. They cannot be vaccinated against rabies and may have variable incubation times for rabies. Avoid attracting wild life to your home or campsite. Do not feed wildlife. Do not feed your pets outdoors, as this attracts wild life and strays. Avoid animals acting unnaturally. Animal-proof your trash. Avoid stray dogs and cats. Stray animals may not be vaccinated and they run high risk of exposure and contact with wild animals that might harbor rabies. The message, Backpackers : stay away from unknown dogs and wild life. The life you save might be your own!
Christine McFadden holds a license to practice veterinary medicine and surgery. She has cared for the family pets of Merced at Valley Animal Hospital for more than 30 years. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.