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5 Myths About Rabies

Did you know today, 28th September, is World Rabies Day? Set up by GARC (the Global Alliance for Rabies Control), the aim is to raise awareness about this terrible disease, and to encourage people to get behind the “0 by 30” movement. This is a campaign to reach a target of 0 cases of dog-transmitted human rabies by 2030 - and it’s something we’re really keen to support! So, in this blog, we’re going to look at 5 myths about rabies, and the terrible truth that not enough people know.

1)        Rabies isn’t an important disease any more

Sadly, this really isn’t the case - over 70% of the world’s population is potentially at risk of rabies, and the disease causes 59,000 human deaths each year - not counting the hundreds of thousands of animal deaths. By comparison, the 2013-16 West African Ebola outbreak caused less than 12,000 deaths, and SARS less than 1000. Yet despite killing 5 times as many people as Ebola every year, equally horribly, rabies doesn’t get anything like the publicity.

2)        Rabies only matters in foreign countries

It is true that rabies cases in the UK are fantastically rare. However, this is because we are lucky enough to live on an island and have a decent quarantine/vaccination protocol. That said, it is likely that 2-5% of vaccinated dogs do not develop protective immunity after a single dose of vaccine, and with increasing numbers of pets travelling abroad, it is only a matter of time before we get an outbreak here.

In addition, we already have bat rabies in this country - and there have been fatalities!

So rabies may be less of a worry to us in the UK, but it still matters.

3)        Rabies can be spotted because it makes animals scared of water

This is an interesting one. Rabies used to be called “hydrophobia” in humans, which does indeed mean “fear of water”. However, the reason for this is that the symptoms include mental confusion and paralysis of the throat - the “fear of water” referenced is in fact a fear of swallowing, because it will result in drowning.

In animals, there are 2 forms of the disease. The “dumb” form results in lethargy, abnormal behaviour and paralysis, whereas animals with the “furious” form become hyper aggressive and will attempt to bite anything that moves. In some animals, the two may alternate, so a sweet cuddly poorly puppy may snap and turn on you. Eventually, in most cases, death occurs from paralysis of the respiratory muscles and suffocation, although occasionally heart failure may occur as well. Fear of water is not a commonly recognised symptom. See here for more details on the presentation of rabies in different types of animals.

In humans, abnormal behaviour, confusion and other neurological symptoms occur, as well as progressive paralysis.

4)        Rabies is curable with modern medicine

Sadly, this is not true. While “post-exposure prophylaxis” (PEP, medication given after exposure) if given before the onset of symptoms is very effective in preventing disease, once symptoms appear, the mortality rate is almost 100%. There are 6 recorded cases of people who survived following the intensive treatment, and the Milwaukee Protocol - once thought to give victims a decent chance - has now been largely withdrawn as there is little or no evidence it is more effective than conventional palliative care.

5)        The most effective way to prevent rabies is to vaccinate people

While this might be the “best” way, the evidence actually suggests that the most cost-effective way is actually to vaccinate pets! The main vector for rabies throughout Africa and most of Asia is the domestic dog - dogs are infected by wild dogs, and then bite their owners. If this crucial population was immunised against the disease, researchers believe that the cycle of infection would be broken, and human rabies virtually eliminated.

So, being honest… how many did you believe?! Rabies is a serious issue for all of us - but it’s a disease that can be controlled. If you’d like to know how you can get involved, check out the GARC website, and see how to take action yourself.