What is rabies?
Rabies is the most fatal infectious disease known to man. It is spread through coming into contact with infected saliva through an open wound, any break of the skin, or through the mucous membranes of the body3. It’s no secret that the majority of human rabies cases stem from dog bites2 as research shows that very few may have derived from other animals such as cats, livestock, or wildlife. Animals that have been reported as no risk of carrying rabies are birds and reptiles, while it is highly unlikely that bats, monkeys, baboons, and rodents such as mice, rats, squirrels and dassies are threats either1.
Extensive rabies vaccination drives and clinics, as well as education around this life-threatening virus is of utmost importance. There is no cure for the disease once symptoms start showing and, while it is so unforgiving, the disease is completely preventable through vaccination in both humans and animals3.
What to do if you have been bitten by an assumed rabid dog
- Wounds should be washed out thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately.
- The animal should be assessed based on their behavior (was it an unprovoked attack? Is the animal displaying unusual behavior? Is the animal drooling excessively, unsteady on its feet or snapping? Some wild animals may appear tame), rabies vaccination history, species, and geographic location. If there is any reason to believe the animal is rabid, contact the closest SPCA and the Department of Health to report the case. The animals would need to be located, inspected, and possibly removed so as to not harm anyone else4.
- Get yourself to a doctor as soon as possible. If the incident suggests that you have been exposed to the rabies virus, your doctor will start you on the rabies PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis).
What to do if you suspect your dog has contracted rabies
Unfortunately, there are no blood tests that could easily diagnose rabies. If you suspect your dog may have come into contact with a rabid animal, you must call your vet or local SPCA immediately. Your dog will need to be isolated completely until the animal that he/she has interacted with has been tested or rabies has been ruled out for various reasons. Rabies is diagnosed with a biopsy of brain tissue, for which the animal will need to be euthanized.
Why is rabies such a problem in South Africa?
Given the current economic climate of South Africa, as well as the poverty rate, it’s no wonder our country has not been able to eradicate rabies yet. Rabies vaccinations for South African pets is law, and while welfare organisations, the South African Veterinary Counsel, the State Vet and other entities persist in rabies control, getting to every pet in the informal settlements and persuading every pet owner to vaccinate is proving a major hurdle. What makes it exceptionally difficult is that dogs need to be vaccinated from 4 months old and then receive a booster shot at least every three years.
South Africa has committed to irradicating rabies by 2030, but without a change in mindset and bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, this will prove to be exceptionally difficult3.
The graph below shows the number of confirmed human rabies cases in South Africa between the years 2000 and 2020.
How you can keep your animals safe
The best way to prevent rabies is to keep your pet on a strict vaccination schedule. Although by law all dogs must be vaccinated every three years, most vets recommend annual vaccinations to be safe.
Vaccinating your pet does not only prevent them from getting the disease, but it also keeps them safe if they bite someone for any other reason. Any individual has the right to ask if your dog has been vaccinated recently for which you need to provide proof, thereby enforcing that there is no threat of rabies transmission. If your dog is not up to date, they may be forced to quarantine for at least 10 days to see if there are any signs of rabies or even be euthanized for the test to be conducted4.
- Kznhealth.gov.za. 2021. [online] Available at: http://www.kznhealth.gov.za/publicity/Rabies-A1-posterinfographic.pdf [Accessed 13 August 2021].
- Nicd.ac.za. 2021. [online] Available at: https://www.nicd.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/An-update-on-rabies-in-South-Africa.pdf [Accessed 13 August 2021].
- The Conversation. 2021. Explainer: what’s behind the rabies outbreak in South Africa. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/explainer-whats-behind-the-rabies-outbreak-in-south-africa-93397 [Accessed 13 August 2021].
- WebMD. 2021. Rabies in Dogs. [online] Available at: https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/rabies-dogs#3 [Accessed 13 August 2021].