28th September is World Rabies Day 2021. So our vet blogger Ashley has been looking into the prospect of a rabies-free world. Is it possible? How could it be done? Why even should we try?

Rabies is a disease caused by viruses, most commonly rabies virus, that belong to a group of viruses known as Lyssaviruses. It is a serious infectious disease responsible for a staggering number of deaths in people every year. It is reported to kill as many as 1 person every 9 minutes.  

Infections in animals and people are almost 100% fatal, with the virus causing severe inflammation in the brain and nervous system. It is a zoonotic disease, which means humans catch the disease from animals; usually from being bitten or scratched by an infected animal, and/or through contact with their saliva.  

It is not a new virus, it has been known about for thousands of years – since at least 2000BC! So why is it still a problem? And in 2021, does it seem feasible that we can eliminate it? 

How does a person contract rabies? 

Before we can work out if rabies could be eliminated, it’s important to understand how humans catch the virus. The main methods of transmission of rabies are: 

1) Dog bites or scratches from an infected dog. This is by far the most common cause of rabies transmission in people, accounting for 99% of cases globally 

2) Bites or scratches from other infected animals. This includes wild animals, such as bats, foxes and racoons. But including all mammals, as all mammals can be infected with rabies and transmit it to a person in this way 


3) Contact with saliva of infected animals with open wounds, the eyes or mouth. For example if an infected dog licks you

Eradication programmes 

The ‘United Against Rabies’ drive ‘Zero by 30’ campaign started in 2018. It is led by the world health organisation (WHO) and world organisation for animal health (OIE). The programme aims to have ‘Zero human deaths from dog-mediated rabies by 2030’. This is being facilitated by the collaborative effort of many global groups focussed on eliminating rabies. 

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Read more about the campaign here

Eliminating rabies in dogs relies heavily on vaccination drives. 

Mission Rabies is a global dog vaccination campaign that sends teams to vaccinate dogs in high risk areas in Asia and Africa. VetHelpDirect is actually sponsoring them this year as part of our Pet Owner Communications Survey! Other vaccination drives take place globally and vaccinating dogs against rabies is one of the most important factors in reducing dog-mediated rabies.

Alongside vaccination drives for dogs, training local veterinarians to recognise the signs in dogs and other mammals

Especially in countries with a high prevalence of rabies this is really important to reduce the risk of these animals to the public. Improving human health in these countries so people are vaccinated for rabies in high risk areas, and are able to access health care promptly can help to reduce the risk of the virus to people as well.

Dealing with rabies in wildlife is more challenging.

Several species of bats, including some in the UK, are known to carry viruses in the Lyssavirus group capable of causing rabies in people. These are not the classical rabies virus but can still cause rabies. It is important that full personal protective equipment is used when handling bats and people are vaccinated for rabies. Aswell as being aware of the potential risk before handling them. With these measures in place the risk of humans contracting rabies from bats is thought to be low.

A successful story of eliminating rabies in wildlife is the elimination of fox rabies in Europe. 

Oral vaccination programmes took place over large areas of central and western Europe where fox rabies previously was an issue. The vaccines were dropped in bait from helicopters and eaten by foxes. The vaccination drive took place over several decades and has been successful in eliminating rabies in foxes in many parts of Europe where it used to be present.

So could rabies be eliminated?

Yes and No. 

I think getting rid of all viruses from all mammals that could potentially cause rabies, especially the strains carried by bats is unlikely. However, eliminating dog-mediated rabies is definitely possible, and eliminating rabies in some populations of wild animals by oral vaccination has already been proven possible. 

If we can successfully eliminate dog-mediated rabies and control rabies in wild animal populations, the risk from other species should be very low, as long as appropriate personal protective equipment and risk management strategies are used by people working with these species. This would result in rabies becoming a much less significant disease for people, saving tens of thousands of lives a year. 

Summary: 

– dog-mediated rabies is the most common form of rabies and biggest cause of human death from rabies 

– eradicating dog-mediated rabies is possible through vaccination drives and improving healthcare globally and is currently being worked towards by the WHO and OIE

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– eradicating rabies entirely is much more challenging due to its reservoirs in wildlife populations although it is possible to reduce the risk by vaccinating wildlife where possible, and public education and risk assessments for people working with wildlife.

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