World Rabies Day promotes prevention of deadly disease

Published on September 01, 2009
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

From a U.S. Navy hospital ship in Latin America to animal hospitals throughout the United States, veterinarians continue working both abroad and at home to control rabies in animals.

The third annual World Rabies Day takes place Sept. 28 to raise awareness that while rabies is preventable, thousands of people die of the disease each year—particularly in Asia and Africa, but also in the Americas. The global Alliance for Rabies Control started the campaign in 2007 to help achieve its goal of preventing rabies in humans and controlling rabies in animals.

World Rabies Day
Lt. Cmdr. Bryan F. Buss of the U.S. Public Health Service works with Dr. Rodney Simone of Haiti during a humanitarian
mission to Latin America by a U.S. Navy hospital ship, which focused partly on rabies prevention.

Among major U.S. partners in the World Rabies Day campaign are the AVMA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year, the AVMA plans to release rabies backgrounders—one for veterinarians and one for the public—and post a video and podcast about the disease here. The same Web page will link to open-access JAVMA manuscripts with data on U.S. rabies surveillance, which the CDC compiles annually.

The CDC and Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine each will host a full-day symposium in September to discuss aspects of rabies prevention and control. The K-State symposium, with sponsorship from Merial, will emphasize how the disease is an example of the one-health concept—the concept that humans, other animals, and the environment share one health.

Countries around the globe are marking World Rabies Day in a variety of ways. Cities in the Philippines and Sri Lanka will hold educational events to encourage responsible pet ownership, for example. Districts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa will offer free rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats. 

Rabies in Latin America

Many rabies prevention efforts do not coincide with World Rabies Day, of course. Rabies prevention was one focus of a recent humanitarian mission to Latin America by the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship.  

The Comfort brought medical professionals from the uniformed services, nongovernmental organizations, and international partners to Antigua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama. The April to July deployment was the Comfort's second humanitarian mission to the region (see JAVMA, Dec. 1, 2007).

The Army Veterinary Corps deployed veterinary personnel for the mission. Civilian volunteer Dr. Roberta L. Hughes represented the Alliance for Rabies Control. Other veterinarians with the U.S. Public Health Service served rotations on the ship.

Lt. Cmdr. Bryan F. Buss of the USPHS spent much of his time vaccinating dogs and cats against rabies in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

He said, "Haiti in particular has a substantial problem with rabies and currently is one of the countries with the highest numbers of cases for human and canine rabies in Latin America."

In Haiti, Lt. Cmdr. Buss' team conducted formal training in rabies prevention for agriculture students and staff members from the country's agriculture ministry. The team worked with three local veterinarians to provide services and offer hands-on training for the participating veterinarians and many of the agriculture students and staff members from the agriculture ministry.

In the Dominican Republic, Lt. Cmdr. Buss' team traveled with government veterinarians and a rotating pair of veterinary students, administering vaccines and other medications to livestock as well as dogs and cats.

"Although no formal training was scheduled, the substantial amount of time that the veterinary students spent working alongside us allowed for many opportunities to maximize the learning experience and answer questions regarding veterinary medicine and public health," he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Nelva J. Bryant of the USPHS also administered rabies vaccines during her time with the USNS Comfort. In El Salvador, she noticed the lack of boundaries between humans and other animals, which could contribute to the spread of zoonoses.

"On a particular small farm in El Salvador, we observed cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and dogs cohabitating," Lt. Cmdr. Bryant said. "These animals were in close proximity to the owners' house and could actually walk inside."

Capt. Cynthia G. Hoobler of the USPHS reflected on the challenges of administering rabies vaccines to dogs and cats in Tumaco, Colombia. The people had no vehicles to bring their animals to a temporary clinic. Children carried dogs by the animals' front and hind feet, and cats arrived inside bags. People did not consider many of the dogs and cats to be pets, so those animals were unfamiliar with human handling.

Rabies in the United States 

Most pet dogs and cats in the United States do receive rabies vaccinations, confirmed a recent survey, but cats are less likely to receive rabies vaccines than are dogs.  

Merial commissioned a national survey by WMS Marketing Services relevant to pet owners' attitudes about rabies. The Jan. 5-9 online survey of 1,005 U.S. pet owners found that 94 percent of dogs receive rabies vaccines while only 75 percent of cats do.

Fifty-seven percent of cat owners who responded to the survey mistakenly believe cats that stay mainly inside are not at risk of contracting rabies, although only 37 percent of dog owners said the same. As of 2007, U.S. rabies surveillance found more cases of the disease in cats than in dogs.

Almost all U.S. dog and cat owners are aware that their pets can contract rabies from wild animals, according to the survey, but a quarter mistakenly believe that rabies is not always fatal once clinical signs appear.

"Disease education and vaccination are the best lines of defense against rabies," reiterated Dr. Robert D. Menardi, Merial's veterinary spokesperson. World Rabies Day offers an opportunity to spread the word, he said.

Additional details about World Rabies Day and the Alliance for Rabies Control are here and here.