Taming rabies worldwide


Taming rabies worldwide

Human incidence of rabies has dramatically dropped in a region of East Africa about the size of Hawaii, thanks to continued vaccination of domestic dogs. Now Washington State University’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health is helping develop a strategy for elimination of rabies as a health threat.

Rabies—the deadliest infection known—kills over 59,000* people each year, with children accounting for half of those deaths. Almost all of these deaths are caused by bites of rabid dogs, with more than 95% of the cases occurring in Africa and Asia, said Guy Palmer, director of the Allen School.

Protecting humans, endangered wildlife

The Allen School’s Dr. Felix Lankester has led a team of researchers in vaccinating dogs in and around Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania. The group’s work is part of the Serengeti Health Initiative’s effort to eliminate rabies in that region.

Vaccinating 70 percent of the dog population against rabies protects humans and endangered wildlife, especially wild carnivores including endangered African wild dogs, said Palmer. But stop giving domestic dogs vaccinations and they will become infected and spread the disease when they bite, he explained.

The problem is, in vast and resource-poor areas, it’s expensive to keep up with vaccine demand. While over $400 million is spent in the U.S. to control rabies each year, the cost is dispersed among pet owners, animal clinics and adoption centers, said Palmer.  

But in 180 Tanzanian villages, the Serengeti Health Initiative in concert with Tanzanian partners shoulders full responsibility, vaccinating hundreds of dogs each day.

Building a model rabies-free zone

By understanding the epidemiology of the disease and how vaccines can be maintained at the village level without continual refrigeration, Allen School researchers and members of the Serengeti Health Initiative are developing a new approach to empower communities to participate in rabies elimination, said Palmer.

The goal is that establishing a rabies-free zone will serve as a model for other regions challenged by the disease.

“Donors and governments want to know that their commitment or investment will result in a solution that’s long term,” said Palmer. “Maintaining a rabies-free zone -- that’s the end game.” 

*Source: Hampson K, Coudeville L, Lembo T, Sambo M, Kieffer A, Attlan M, et al. (2015) Estimating the Global Burden of Endemic Canine Rabies. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 9(4): e0003709. doi:10.1371/journal. pntd.0003709