World Rabies Day Reflects Need for Rabies Awareness

Rabid Dog
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World Rabies Day is the one day of the year designated to raising awareness about one of the world’s older, yet more serious, animal diseases, which continues to threaten humans.

One only has to read the eloquently written introduction to Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy’s book, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (Viking, 2012), to be reminded of the impact the rabies virus has had on wildlife, domestic animals and humans for thousands of years — and still has today.

Three facts highlight the significance of rabies exposure:

  1. All mammals can be infected with rabies.
  2. Most infected animals can transmit the rabies virus to other animals — including pets and people.
  3. With rare exception, infection is fatal.

Consider the Numbers

Currently, the World Health Organization estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 human fatalities from rabies occur annually . According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • More than 90 percent of rabies exposure around the globe is through rabid dogs.
  • Exposure to rabid dogs is the cause of more than 99 percent of human deaths from rabies worldwide.

In North America today, humans are only rarely diagnosed with rabies. However, unvaccinated dogs and cats — and even ferrets — do pose a risk for humans. In the United States and Canada, routine vaccination of pets plays a critical public health role in reducing human risk for exposure to the rabies virus.

  • In the last decade in the United States, only two to three human infections have been confirmed each year. Most of those infections were acquired outside the United States or resulted from exposure to bats.
  • However, in Africa, India and several locations in Asia, where dogs are rarely vaccinated against rabies, the prevalence of the disease in animals and risk for human exposure through contact with dogs continue to be the primary source of infection.

Exposure to the rabies virus, whether known or suspected, carries a significant financial cost, particularly when an unvaccinated pet is exposed to a rabid (or possibly rabid) animal then has direct contact with humans. It is estimated that, in the United States alone, 40,000 people undergo treatment for rabies exposure each year — at a potential cost of thousands of dollars per person.

A Reality Check

Rabies vaccination laws in the United States are largely credited with reducing the number of dogs infected with rabies during the 1940s and ’50s, a time when the risk of dog-to-human transmission was extremely high. In 1950 alone, 4,979 dogs were confirmed to be infected with rabies in the United States. By contrast, in 2012, rabies was confirmed in the United States in only 84 dogs.

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