This year’s 15th annual #WorldRabiesDay, which takes place on 28 September, will focus on eradicating the many fears and myths surrounding rabies and replacing them with concrete facts. Only through spreading the truth and helping one another understand the reality of the issue, can we overcome it.

Besides urging people in all communities to vaccinate their pets, the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) is joined by the South African Veterinary Council (SAVC), the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, Rural Development (DALRRD), the National Department of Health (DoH), the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the National Animal Health Forum (NAHF) and the Rabies Advisory Group (RAG) to replace fear with facts.

Rabies is a very serious problem all over South Africa. Dog-mediated rabies is particularly rife in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. It is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is passed from infected animals to humans – it is transmitted through saliva, most commonly if one is bitten. It has a dramatic effect on the human brain. Once clinical signs become visible, there is no curative treatment, and it becomes fatal.

Dogs and cats should be vaccinated

According to modern statistics, this terrible virus kills at least one person in the world every nine minutes. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, more than 70 000 people die from it each year. Some 95% of these deaths occur in Africa and Asia.

It is critical that pet owners from all walks of life have their dogs and cats vaccinated in order to protect our communities from this disease. Only by understanding the scientific facts and getting rid of myths and misinformation, can this be achieved. Moreover, in South Africa, not having your pets vaccinated is against the law.

As we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of misinformation, fake news and superstitions surrounding the vaccine and ways of dealing with the virus. The same can be said of many other diseases and viruses, such as rabies.

Common myths surrounding rabies

Let’s look at some of the most common and misleading beliefs surrounding rabies, which are based on fear, as opposed to the truth, which has been proven through many years of scientific studies.

Many people believe and have spread the misconception that rabies is not preventable, meaning it is present in the animal from birth until death. This is not true. Science has shown that it can be prevented through vaccination of animals by any responsible and loving pet owner. Is has also been shown that if only 70% of dogs in high-risk areas are vaccinated, canine rabies in that area can be completely eliminated.

Another false belief is that rabies cannot be prevented in humans once they have been bitten, or that there is no medical treatment. This is not true and sometimes leads people trusting in traditional medicine rather than scientifically tested and proven solutions. There certainly is treatment for rabies in humans, but only if it is given correctly and immediately after (or as soon as possible) the incident.

The post-exposure prophylaxis treatment is 100% effective if it is given on time and correctly. If you have been bitten or scratched by a suspected rabid animal, you should wash the wound well with soap and running water for 15 minutes. Then, seek immediate treatment at your nearest medical facility where a series of vaccinations will be given and if required, rabies antibodies will be administered.

People also have the incorrect idea that rabies is only ever transmitted by dog bites. This is also untrue. Though in our communities it is most commonly passed on by infected dogs, it can be transferred to a human from the bite, scratch or lick of any infected animal, the second most common being cats.

How to recognise rabies

Animals in general are not a risk. However, we can identify the tell-tale signs in a rabies-infected animal, namely behavioural changes, and neurological symptoms. They normally salivate profusely, can become paralysed, may not be able to swallow, continuously vocalise (barking, whining or howling) and often become aggressive or on the contrary, non-responsive.

It is very important to stay away from animals with these symptoms and to immediately report it to your vet, animal health technician or to the police. To protect your animals, family and community, you must vaccinate your dogs and cats. The first rabies vaccine is given at twelve weeks (three months) of age, followed by a booster vaccination between one to twelve months later. Thereafter, a booster is needed every three years.

In high-risk areas, annual vaccination is strongly recommended. However, it is never too late for your pet to receive their first vaccination, followed by the booster protocol. South Africa is committed to the global Zero by 30 goal – for zero human deaths being caused by dog-mediated rabies by 2030. This can be achieved through adequate vaccination of both dog and cat populations, as well as provision of treatment to humans that have been exposed to rabid animals. – Press release, South African Veterinary Association