Rabies is one of the most feared human diseases, present in all continents (except Antarctica) and virtually guaranteed to kill you if no treatment is administered. It is the focus of many campaigns and eradication programmes, and yet it still kills approximately 59,000 people every year, the majority of cases in Africa and Asia.
Rabies is a zoonotic disease (transmitted from animals to humans) caused by a virus. In 99% of human rabies cases the infection was spread by a dog, although all mammals, both domestic and wild can potentially transmit the virus. The virus is spread via saliva, predominantly through bites, but occasionally through scratches. The virus will not enter through intact skin.
Rabies is preventable with vaccinations and post-bite treatments, but once symptoms appear there is no cure, and it is deadly in nearly 100% of cases. Unfortunately, most of the human fatalities occur in poor and vulnerable populations and remote locations. Many rabies cases go unreported and young children between 5-14 are the most frequent victims. Lack of medical care and the high price of bite treatment is the reason for many fatalities.
There are two forms of rabies, both in animals and humans. Furious rabies includes symptoms such as hyperactivity, excitable or aggressive behaviour, confusion and fear of water. The other, paralytic form presents as a less dramatic, progressive paralysis of muscles with eventual coma and death. Both forms can start with symptoms similar to a flu: fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. Diagnosis of a rabies infection is generally not possible until the later symptoms appear, and normally diagnosis in animals is only made after death.
The most cost-effective way to prevent rabies in people is by vaccinating dogs. In countries like Kenya with a large stray dog population, mass vaccination of dogs and dog population management (through spay and neuter campaigns) is crucial for the eradication of rabies. Killing stray dogs is not a solution because the spread of rabies is not dependent on the density of dogs and dogs will quickly repopulate areas where other dogs have been killed.
Almost equally important is raising awareness on rabies and how to prevent dog bites. Educating people on responsible pet ownership, keeping vaccinations up-to-date, how to prevent dog bites and when to seek medical help are key points. The prevention of dog bites includes teaching people, especially children, how to read dog body language and how to approach and touch dogs.
Human rabies prevention post-exposure consists of thoroughly immediately washing bite wounds or scratches with soap and running water for a minimum 15 minutes and seeking medical help to receive vaccinations and rabies immunoglobulin.
Dog body language
Body language is often a combination of several signs which need to be considered together. Generally, signs that a dog is happy and/or relaxed include:
Relaxed body posture
Mouth open and relaxed
Ears natural position
Eyes normal shape
Signs of a stressed, worried or angry dog (do not approach):
Stiff body posture or lying down cowering
Ears lying flat
Eyes staring at you with large pupils
Lips drawn back
Tail between the legs
Yawning, lip licking
Turning head away from you
- Do not approach or touch a dog that is sleeping, eating, or chewing on a toy/bone. Dogs are more likely to bite if they are startled or disturbed.
- Do not approach a dog that is barking, growling, or appears scared or timid.
- Do not approach a dog that behaves in a strange manner (drooling, overly aggressive OR unusually friendly, howling or vocalising repeatedly, biting at imaginary objects, trouble moving or paralyzed)
- Do not put your face right up to a dog’s face.
- Do not put out your hand to pet a dog on the top of the head. Let the dog first sniff your closed hand and only then, if the dog allows you to approach, pet the dog’s shoulder or chest. Never pull tails or ears.
- Do not try to pet dogs through a fence.
- If you fear dogs and one approaches you, do not try to run or scream. Avoid eye contact with the dog and stand still until the dog moves away.
- Don’t try to outrun a dog.
- Don’t hit, kick, throw things at or shout at dogs.
Article by Dr. Laura Wessman