A heavy burden – how rabies affects dogs and people worldwide
Rabies is the only virus in the world with a nearly 100% (95%) death rate, killing 59,000 people a year. Many more dogs suffer a painful slow death from this terrible disease.
Counting the cost
Rabies leaves a harsh legacy of serious economic costs and psychological trauma. When people are affected and die, their survivors must not only cope with grief but also with the losses of income and labour caused by their loved ones’ deaths. And in areas where treatment is available, family members may be forced to sell their animals and other assets to pay for it.
Losing dogs to rabies also increases people’s psychological and economic vulnerability. In rural communities, dogs typically provide companionship and support their owners’ livelihoods by providing security and herding livestock.
And when the disease spreads beyond dogs to livestock, people lose their animals that supply milk, meat, transport and that they use to plough the land. Livestock loss to rabies in Africa is estimated at nearly US$2 million annually and US$10.5 million in Asia.
Rabies almost always kills people unless they are given prompt treatment. Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)s – extensive wound washing and approximately four vaccines – can save human lives only if after-bite treatment starts immediately. However, the vaccines, and the rabies immunoglobulin which may also be administered, are expensive and rarely available in the rural areas where most bites occur.
PEPs can cost up to around US$150 to administer – an insurmountable sum in most rabies endemic countries where wages can be as low as US$1-2 per day. PEPs are not generally used to treat animals that have been infected.
Vaccination of animals to prevent rabies, as endorsed by WHO and World Animal Protection, is the most cost effective and successful approach to protect animals and humans.
World Animal Protection has proven that when 70% of dogs in a well-monitored programme are vaccinated and vaccination coverage is maintained consistently over four years the disease can be eliminated. This means the expensive and sometimes elusive PEPs can be stored only for emergency cases.
Rabies in dogs
One of the first signs of rabies in dogs is the way it can change behaviour. Normally friendly dogs can seem more restless, anxious and aggressive while excitable animals may become more docile. Infected dogs may bite and snap attacking other animals, humans and even inanimate objects. They may be feverish and constantly lick, bite and chew at the site where they were bitten. They can also be hypersensitive to touch, light and sound and want to hide in dark places.
One of the most well-known symptoms of rabies in dogs is foaming at the mouth which happens when the disease starts to paralyse the throat and jaw muscles. As the painful paralysing effects of rabies spreads to their legs the dogs can appear disorientated, uncoordinated and they may stagger about. Infected dogs can appear to lose their appetites, but in reality, they are unable to move their muscles to eat or drink so they suffer severe dehydration and starvation before dying terrible deaths.
Rabies can infect people, dogs, cats, livestock and wild animals. In some areas of the world bats are particular carriers. But we have proven that by eradicating rabies in dogs, we can eradicate it in all other species in the local area. Protecting dogs really can protect the world.
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