Rabies is a zoonotic disease (a disease that is transmitted to humans from animals) that is caused by a virus. Rabies infects domestic and wild animals, and is spread to people through close contact with infected saliva (via bites or scratches). The disease is present on nearly every continent of the world but most human deaths occur in Asia and Africa (more than 95%). Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is fatal.
The first symptoms of rabies are flu-like, including fever, headache and fatigue, and then progress to involve the respiratory, gastrointestinal and/or central nervous systems. In the critical stage, signs of hyperactivity (furious rabies) or paralysis (dumb rabies) dominate. In both furious and dumb rabies, some paralysis eventually progresses to complete paralysis, followed by coma and death in all cases, usually due to breathing failure. Without intensive care, death occurs during the first seven days of illness.
Safe and effective vaccines are available to prevent rabies in animals and in humans before and after suspected exposures. Vaccination of domestic animals (mostly dogs) and wildlife (such as foxes and raccoons) has led to reduced disease in several developed and developing countries. However, recent increases in human rabies deaths in South America and parts of Africa and Asia evidence that rabies is re- emerging as a serious public health issue.
The most cost-effective strategy for preventing rabies in people is by eliminating rabies in animals through animal vaccinations. A lack of awareness of the effectiveness and feasibility of this prevention approach hinders elimination of human cases. As shown in several countries - such as Japan and Malaysia - elimination of rabies in dogs can result in elimination of transmissions to people and other animals. Preventing human rabies through control of domestic dog rabies is a realistic goal for large parts of Africa and Asia.
Prevention of human rabies must be a community effort involving animal owners, veterinarians and public health services. Rabies elimination efforts that focus on mass vaccinations of animals are financially justified by the future savings of discontinuing post-exposure preventive treatment for people.
Mylissia Stukey (Riley County Humane Society; Global Alliance for Rabies Control)
Source: World Health Organization