Sebastião is seven. He lives in São Paulo, Brazil with his parents and two sisters. Sebastião’s household has another important member of the family: the family’s six year old dog, Tito. Sebastião loves Tito dearly and helps out with keeping him fed and exercised with toys. As Tito is an adventurous dog who loves the outdoors, Sebastião and his family make sure he is protected against the health risks from his active life, and ultimately this protects the family he lives with. Tito has regular visits to a veterinarian who ensures he is healthy and free from infections and parasites he could pick up outdoors. This might seem a small matter, but it’s desperately important for both Tito and Sebastião. Some of the risks Tito is exposed to outdoors are reasonably benign irritants like fleas (although fleas can carry and spread serious diseases), others are deadly serious, like rabies.
Rabies is a viral disease that affects the nervous system of mammals. It’s one of the most widely known and dangerous examples of a zoonosis, a disease that can be passed from animals to humans and vice-versa. The rabies virus is present in saliva, and is most commonly passed through bites or through wounds of the skin and mucous membranes. Since the disease causes animals to behave aggressively and erratically, the risk of transmission between animals and humans that come in contact with them is high. Rabies not only has deadly consequences for animals, but for humans in most cases as well, unless early treatment is available. If Tito were to pick up rabies outdoors by bites or scratches from a rabid animal, Sebastião would be at serious risk of infection. Of the nearly 70,000 people killed by rabies each year throughout the world, nearly half are children, who are perhaps less able to recognise the first signals of aggression or the changes in behaviour of familiar animals.
In a world without veterinary medicines rabies would be an exceptionally pressing concern. Animals, even pets would be a constant threat to humans and each other. Pets like Tito would be a real and pressing danger to those in close contact with them.
Luckily, treatments and vaccines created by developers of veterinary medicine have made huge strides in combating this serious disease. In the United States of America (USA) and Canada, before 1960, the majority of rabies cases reported came from domestic animals, cats or pet dogs like Tito. But immunisation programmes for pets greatly reduced the number of reported cases. Treatment of wild animals such as in the USA foxes, racoons, skunks, coyotes and bats using bait vaccination has proven highly effective and several areas have all but eliminated the disease in wildlife by the treatment of foxes and protection of pets (Switzerland in 1999, France in 2000, Belgium and Luxembourg in 2001, the Czech Republic in 2004). Now, vaccination and proper treatment methods can ensure that both Tito and Sebastião can enjoy a safer, loving and healthy friendship.
Rabies in Asia
Rabies is still a problem in many developing countries. Notably in India, where someone dies from Rabies every twenty-five minutes, bringing the yearly death toll up to over 20,000 victims. Mostly it affects poor people, and a substantial part of them are children. Some authorities are in favour of preventive vaccination in children, but then they can still be bitten by rabid animals – and mutilated as a result. So mass oral vaccination of stray dogs seems to be a good initiative and is applied in some regions. Projects exist where our industry helps with providing local funding, rabies vaccine and also share expertise with partners to support successful implementation of the projects in villages surrounding Bangalore and Pune, India.