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What is rabies?

Rabies: a scourge that kills nearly 59,000 people a year

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. The virus is particularly present in the saliva and brain of infected animals. It is transmitted via the saliva of an infected animal, most often a dog. The incubation period varies from several days to several months. Once symptoms are present, the disease is fatal for both animals and humans.

Rabies is rife in two-thirds of the world’s countries

Rabies is still a pervasive global threat. Half of the world’s population live in an endemic area, and more than 80% of deaths occur in rural areas, where access to health education campaigns and post-bite prophylaxis is limited or inexistent. Africa and Asia are the continents with the highest risk of human mortality, with more than 95% of the world’s fatal cases. These regions are also those where canine rabies is controlled the least.
Geographical distribution of animal rabies in the world

Dogs: the main carrier of rabies

Around 99% of human cases of rabies are due to bites from infected dogs. Controlling and eradicating rabies therefore means combatting it at its animal source.

Eliminating canine rabies in order to prevent human rabies

There are three existing solutions to avoid human cases of rabies:

  • Mass vaccination of dogs in infected areas – the only way to permanently interrupt the disease’s infectious cycle between animals and humans;
  • Preventative vaccination for humans;
  • Administration of anti-rabies serum following a bite by a dog suspected to be infected.

Mass vaccination of dogs is the method of choice, as this is the only real way to interrupt the disease’s infectious cycle between animals and humans. It is estimated that by vaccinating 70% of the dogs where infection is still rife, rabies could be eradicated in dogs and the number of human cases would rapidly drop to almost zero. Excellent anti-rabies vaccines for dogs, developed according to OIE standards, are nowadays available.

The financial challenge represented by dog vaccination campaigns needs to be put into perspective: around 10% of the financial resources currently used to provide emergency treatment for bite victims would likely enable the entire world’s national Veterinary Services to eradicate rabies in dogs, the domestic animal most responsible for the disease.