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Can we tackle rabies with plants?

Rabies has plagued humans for centuries and shockingly, it still kills 59,000 people every year, mainly through dog bites. Global organizations are united in their pledge to fight it and rid the world of human rabies by 2030 and it starts with vaccinating dogs. 

It’s been found that inoculating just 70 per cent of dogs can disrupt the transmission of rabies, slowing its spread and eventually eradicating the disease – this is known as herd immunity. Combined with greater education about the disease and providing adequate access to human treatment we can fight rabies.

We take a look at just some of the more surprising ways the world is taking action against rabies.

1. Educating children in India

Approximately 36 percent of the world’s rabies deaths take place in India. It’s a huge figure and a giant vaccination challenge when some estimates put the Indian dog population at 25 million. 

That means until dog vaccination coverage grows, educating people about the disease is essential.

In response, India’s central government education body has launched a program to teach children, who are particularly vulnerable to rabies, about dog-bite and rabies prevention in all central government (Kendriya Vindyalayas) schools. It aims to teach youngsters aged between 10 and 17 years about how to behave around street dogs, what to do after being bitten by a dog and how to help prevent rabies, helping them to be rabies-wise and better co-exist with dogs. 

2. Preventing dog meat trade 

The WHO has explicitly highlighted the dog meat trade as a contributing factor to the spread of rabies. That’s because it moves rabies positive dogs across distances, spreading the risk and disrupting mass dog vaccination programs, which are trying to reach herd immunity. 

In Indonesia, campaigns to increase opposition against the dog meat trade are gaining traction through government lobbying and celebrity advocacy. A breakthrough came when the Central Indonesian government ordered all provincial governments to take immediate action to tackle the country’s dog, cat and exotic animal meat trade. According to reports, the action has been backed by Java, and Bali has already been taking action on dog meat traders.  

3. Injecting skin deep 

One of the most tragic elements in the fight against rabies is that for some families, they simply can’t afford to pay for the treatment required when someone is bitten. 

To help overcome this prohibitive cost, India has been testing a new way of administering vaccines – into the outer layer of skin.

The new types of modern cell-based vaccines are very different from the nerve-tissue based vaccination first developed in the 19th century by French biologist Louis Pasteur. 

These cell-based jabs can be administered both into the muscle or the skin. India has recognized that by injecting patients intradermally, when suitable, it uses a smaller quantity of the medication and costs between 60-80 percent less than the price paid for intramuscular vaccines.  

4. The tobacco plants producing human rabies antibodies

Over the past two decades scientists have been studying how tobacco plants could be used to help bolster stocks of the human rabies vaccine. 

Through genetic engineering, scientists have been giving tobacco plants the coding for the human antibody against rabies. The plants then use that code to create the antibodies, which scientists discovered were as efficient at fighting rabies, when tested in hamsters, as mammalian or human antibodies. 

Although these results were promising, further research has shown more needs to be done before they are a viable option for an alternative rabies vaccine.  

It’s clear that despite the will of the world and the vaccines available, the road to rabies eradication is complicated but it is also 100 percent eradication of dog-mediated rabies is possible.