Rabies kills. And the deaths are preventable. As World Rabies Day approaches on September 28, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is reminding everyone – especially animal owners – about the importance of vaccinating their animals for rabies and avoiding exposure to the usually-fatal viral disease.
Rabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “has the highest case fatality ratio of any infectious disease if prompt intervention is not initiated.”
While cases of human rabies are rare in most developed nations, a recent CDC report published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) shows that people are still vulnerable to the disease. There were four reported cases of human rabies in the United States in 2009, three of which proved fatal.
“Most of us recognize the dangers associated with rabies,” says Dr. Larry Kornegay, AVMA president, “but even though reported cases of rabies in humans are rare in the U.S., we need to remain vigilant in our efforts to control the disease. Every year, we continue to see rabies in pets, livestock, horses and wildlife. And the truth of the matter is, we can prevent most of these cases.”
Rabies education and prevention is the goal of World Rabies Day, an international program now in its fourth year that has helped educate about 100 million people worldwide, has involved 125 countries and has led to the successful vaccination of 3 million animals. These numbers are significant because rabies kills more than 55,000 people each year, many of them children living in poorer areas of Africa and Asia.
During 2009, according to the CDC report, 49 states and Puerto Rico reported 6,690 cases of rabid animals and four human cases, representing a 2.2 percent decrease from the 6,841 rabid animals and two human cases reported in 2008. About 92 percent of reported rabid animals were wildlife, with the majority of cases involving raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes. There were 300 reported cases in cats, 81 cases in dogs, 74 cases in cattle, and 41 cases in horses and mules.
“Rabies is still prevalent in wild animals, and clearly, every unvaccinated pet that lives within our family setting has the potential to bring rabies back into our homes and our schools and expose us as well as our loved ones,” says Peter Costa, director of global communications for the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, the lead agency behind World Rabies Day. “The sad fact is that rabies still claims human lives in the United States and around the world.”
So what can the public do to help control rabies? For starters, pet and animal owners need to have their veterinarian vaccinate their dogs, cats and ferrets, as well as horses and select livestock. The public can reduce the possibility of exposure to rabies by not letting their pets roam free. Cats and ferrets should be kept indoors, and dogs should be closely supervised when they are outside, Dr. Kornegay says. Spaying and neutering pets not only helps prevent the birth of unwanted animals, it may also decrease their roaming tendencies and their exposure to unvaccinated animals.
“It is also important to discourage wildlife or stray animals by not leaving exposed garbage or food outside,” Dr. Kornegay says. “And wild animals should never be kept as pets. Not only is this illegal, but wild animals pose a potential rabies threat to anyone who may handle them or come in contact with them.”
It is also critically important to educate children about the dangers posed by wild animals and to remind them to never handle unfamiliar animals, even if they appear friendly.
“If you see a wild animal acting strangely, report it to the city or county animal-control department,” Dr. Kornegay says. “Never take matters into your own hands.”
For more information about rabies, including a brochure for pet owners and helpful tips on how to avoid dog bites, visit the AVMA’s World Rabies Day web page.
The AVMA and its more than 80,000 member veterinarians are engaged in a wide variety of activities dedicated to advancing the science and art of animal, human and public health. Visit the AVMA Web site at www.avma.org to learn more about veterinary medicine and animal care.