Every year, 59,000 people worldwide die of canine-transmitted rabies and the value of economic losses due to rabies per year is estimated at $8.6 billion, according to the findings of a University of Glasgow study into the global impact of the disease.
“An understanding of the actual burden helps us determine and advocate for the resources needed to tackle this fatal disease,” Professor Louis Nel, executive director of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC), said in a recent interview with Vaccine News.
Rabies has an extraordinarily high death rate, but it also is extraordinarily preventable.
In countries that invested most in preventative vaccinations of dogs, the human death rate of rabies was the lowest. Countries that were unable to invest significantly in dog vaccinations, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, had the highest rates of human rabies death.
But animal vaccination isn’t the only responsive step that can be taken. Human vaccinations are already available, both preventative for those working close to rabid animals and post-bite for those already infected. By collaborating between human and animal health sectors, the study suggests, the financial burden on countries can be reduced and the death rates would be expected to drop.
GARC doesn’t recommend preventative vaccination in all high-risk areas, Louise Taylor, coordinator for the organization's Partners for Rabies Prevention Group, clarified.
“In certain very remote areas where access to vaccine is extremely difficult, this may be warranted," she said. "However, any strategy that relies heavily on human vaccination will never eliminate the risk of rabies from dogs.”
Rather than posing a more aggressive strategy, GARC proposes improving access to the post-bite vaccine as part of acknowledging a reality.
“The best long-term solution to canine rabies is to vaccinate dogs, so that if people are bitten they are not at risk of rabies,” Taylor said. “However, until the disease is eliminated from the local dog population, post-exposure vaccination of people who are bitten must be provided as well.”
While the road might be long, there is a path to eliminating canine rabies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said that more than 90 percent of animal rabies reports they receive occur in wild animals, meaning efforts to curtail the disease in the domesticated animal population have largely been effective.
“The difficulty lies in making vaccines available to all of those who need them, at all times, and at a price that they can afford," Taylor said.