World Rabies Day on 28th September commemorated the anniversary of the death of Louis Pasteur, who developed the first rabies vaccine. This week on the Pat Kenny Show, we discussed the reasons why there is hope that rabies may finally be eliminated as a cause of death in humans over the next twenty years. To read more about rabies, see the lower half of this blog post.
The Mediterranean refugee crisis has been the big news story of this summer, with over 2500 people dying in their efforts to find a safe place to live. Yet there’s another crisis happening all the time, with over 2000 people dying every two weeks- nearly 60000 every year – yet it rarely makes the news. The cause of these deaths? One of the most ancient and horrific diseases: rabies.
The rabies virus is like a submicroscopic version of an alien from a science fiction horror movie. The disease-causing agent multiplies in the brain and salivary glands of an infected dog, causing changes in the brain that make the animal fiercely aggressive, biting any living creatures within range. A bite from a rabid dog introduces saliva, teeming with infectious viral particles, into the body of the victim. The rabies virus then tracks up through the nervous system settling into into the brain and salivary glands, and the cycle is complete.
The disease has a long incubation period: it can take months for the virus to move from the site of the bite to the brain. People usually develop rabies within weeks, but it can take over a year for signs to develop.
Rabies in Humans
The disease is bad enough in animals, causing episodes of bizarre behaviour and eventual death. For humans, there’s the added issue of our awareness of what is happening to us. People don’t recover from rabies. By the time the rabies virus has entered the brain and signs of the disease have become apparent, it’s too late. Death is inevitable. Infected humans suffer episodes of deranged, convulsive behaviour, interspersed by periods of normal, calm, rationality when they are fully aware of the unavoidable and unpleasant death that lies ahead.
Rabies in Ireland
Rabies used to be a big problem here in Ireland: towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were regular human deaths from the disease. Historian Sharon Clancy has gathered details of two real-life cases: they make compelling reading.
In December 1894, Denis Moloney, a man in his seventies who lived alone near Limerick, was standing in the boreen leading to his house when a local stray terrier jumped at him and bit him on the hand. After some weeks he became weak, and went off his food. He refused medical assistance and instead called on the services of a local ‘charmer’. When a doctor was finally called in, hydrophobia (rabies) was diagnosed. He died a few days later, on 25 March 1895.
On 18 January 1896 Hanora Kenny, a 60-year-old widow, was in her house at Fish Lane in Limerick when a cat jumped at her. The cat bit at the woman’s arm, and she pulled it off by the scruff of its neck and held it while she screamed for help. Two men ran to her assistance; they killed the cat and took the woman to the local hospital. Sadly, the treatment was ineffective, and she gradually became worse and died three months later.
These days, people (such as vets working in Africa or Asia) who are at risk of being exposed to rabies can be vaccinated so that they’re fully protected. And if members of the public in these countries are bitten by potentially rabid animals, they can be given post-exposure treatment. It’s only when this treatment isn’t given that there’s a serious risk of rabies, and death nearly always follows. It’s not just local people in these countries who are risk: in May 2012, a woman died of rabies in a London hospital after being bitten by a dog during a visit to India. And 2009, a veterinary nurse who’d worked in an African animal sanctuary died of rabies in Northern Ireland, many months after returning home. Anybody who travels to one of the 150 countries around the world that harbour rabies needs to be aware of the risk.
Over a century ago, rabies was eradicated in Ireland through a combination of strict measures, including compulsory muzzling of dogs, rounding up of all strays, and a new vaccine that became available for dogs. Why is it, then, that rabies has not been solved in so much of Africa and Asia? There are two reasons: lack of resources and use of the wrong methods. Up until now, when there’s a rabies outbreak, all dogs in the area have simply been culled, often by being shot. This has been shown to be ineffective.
There is a much better answer. mass dog vaccination. If 70 per cent of a local dog population is vaccinated, a barrier of healthy immune dogs is created, preventing the disease from spreading. Unable to spread between dogs, the number of canine rabies cases decreases; and when rabies in dogs is eliminated, the threat to humans is also eliminated.
In 1983, Latin America committed to mass dog vaccination: dog rabies cases in the region declined from a peak of 25,000 in 1977 to just 196 in 2011, and human cases fell by 96 per cent to only 15 across the whole continent. The aim of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control is to achieve the same levels of success in Africa and Asia.
The number of rabies-related human deaths in Europe today is fewer than ﬁve per year, due to strict control programmes including compulsory rabies vaccination of dogs in many countries, as well as in dogs travelling from rabies free zones like Ireland. Human fatalities associated with rabies occur in Europe only in cases who fail to seek medical assistance, usually because people were unaware of their exposure.
World Rabies Day
Today – September 28th – is World Rabies Day. The strap line “End Rabies Together” sums it up: with human cooperation and pooling of resources, rabies across the world can be consigned to history, where it ought to be, as it is now in Ireland..
Pet queries from listeners via text and calls
- We have 2 male rabbits that have recently started fighting, guessing it’s puberty. We have separated them within their run (large ex hen coup) but it’s very distressing…what do you recommend we do?
- My dog holds her back paw up after a rest and sometimes after a walk. Would Pete advise an operation? She’s nearly 8 yrs. An Xray showed a mild cruciate problem.
- My dog has a number of lumps on his body. He is approx 40kg and has had no change in appetite or humour and is not lacking in any energy. I brought him to the vet last year who said they were likely lipomas. They have grown in number since then but do not seem to bother him even when I apply pressure. Is this worth investigating further or any other suggestions? Shauna
- I have a question about our 20 year old cat, Guinness. Could he have Alzheimer’s? He seems very confused and lost, doesn’t sit in his old favourite spots anymore and keeps trying to come into house even though he was always an outdoor cat. He doesn’t seem happy and wondering would it be best to have him put down? Thanks!
- Got bitten by a dog 6 weeks ago and didn’t get a tetanus injection, is it too late now and should I still go and get treated? My neighbour’s dog is just 2 years old and can’t stand up after exercise. It starts with his hind legs then his front legs. What can cause this please?