September 15, 2002


 Expert warns veterinarians to remain vigilant about rabies

Posted Sept. 1, 2002

When rabies claimed the lives of five people in the United States in 2000, one life in 2001, and another in 2002, the disease reemerged as an important public health issue.

The reemergence was caused by several factors, according to Dr. Charles E. Rupprecht, the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Rabies Reference and Research and chief of the Rabies Section at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who gave a presentation on the reemergence of rabies July 13 at the AVMA Annual Convention.

Dr. Rupprecht gave a number of reasons for the reemergence of rabies, including:

  • Rapid evolution of the RNA rabies virus
  • The diversity of hosts capable of carrying the disease
  • Altered environments, which are bringing people and domesticated animals into close contact with wildlife
  • Increased national and international movement of people and animals
  • Lack of advocacy about the disease
cases by year

Additionally, Dr. Rupprecht blamed complacency among some veterinarians and public health officials for the reemergence. He urged veterinarians to reeducate themselves about the virus and be vigilant.

"You're our eyes and ears out there," Dr. Rupprecht said.

He explained that veterinarians are the experts on rabies and play an important public health role by monitoring the disease.

"There isn't a line between humans and animals when it comes to this disease," Dr. Rupprecht said.

Later, he emphasized the need to dispel myths about the disease, including misconceptions that rabid animals develop hydrophobia, that vaccinated dogs lose desirable qualities, and that folk therapies such as herbs, chili powder, and amulets can cure the disease.

"Rabies is still a fatal, incurable infection once symptoms begin," according to a paper by Dr. Rupprecht.

But not all the news about rabies is bad. According to Dr. Rupprecht, "more than 90 percent of all the animal cases reported annually to the CDC now occur in wildlife, whereas before 1960 the majority were in domesticated animals. Wild carnivores and bats are the principal rabies hosts today. The number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States has declined from more than 100 annually at the turn of the 20th century to 1 to 2 per year in the 1990s."

"The good news is things are relatively stable," Dr. Rupprecht said.

Dr. Rupprecht noted that in undeveloped countries the outlook was not as good, with 50,000 human fatalities worldwide attributed to rabies each year.