For too long, pet owners living in cities and the suburbs have believed that rabies is no threat to their animals; that it’s a disease carried by farm animals and wildlife and therefore won’t infect their pets. Not true.
Rabies is endemic in South Africa and has been identified in rural and in urban areas. In fact, 99% of rabies cases come from dog bites, with children being at greatest risk. Once clinical symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal.
Rabies is present on all continents, except Antarctica, with over 95% of human deaths occurring in the Asia and Africa regions. People are usually infected following a deep bite or scratch from a dog with rabies (99% of the time). Human deaths following exposure to foxes, raccoons, skunks, jackals, mongooses and other wild carnivore host species are very rare, and bites from rodents are not known to transmit rabies.
Transmission can also occur if saliva of infected animals comes into direct contact with human mucosa or fresh skin wounds. Human-to-human transmission through bites or saliva is theoretically possible but has never been confirmed. The same applies for transmission to humans via consumption of raw meat or milk of infected animals.
What’s truly scary is that the incubation period for rabies is typically two to three months which means that should you be bitten by a rabid dog, you may not know you have the disease for up to 12 weeks. Initial symptoms include a fever with pain and unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking, or burning sensation (paraesthesia) at the wound site. As the virus spreads to the central nervous system, progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops.
There are two forms of the disease:
- Furious rabies results in signs of hyperactivity, excitable behaviour, hydrophobia (fear of water) and sometimes aerophobia (fear of drafts or of fresh air). Death occurs after a few days due to cardio-respiratory arrest.
- Paralytic rabies accounts for about 20% of the total number of human cases. This form of rabies runs a less dramatic and usually longer course than the furious form. Muscles gradually become paralysed, starting at the site of the bite or scratch. A coma slowly develops, and eventually death occurs. The paralytic form of rabies is often misdiagnosed, contributing to the under-reporting of the disease.
What to do if you are bitten
If you or your children are bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, hold the wound under running water for at least 15 minutes and wash thoroughly with soap and water then get to a healthcare facility as fast as you can. Once symptoms appear it is too late.
A health professional will also offer you the following preventative measures:
- A series of rabies vaccinations (also called post-exposure prophylaxis)
- Wound care and disinfection
- A tetanus booster vaccination
Alert your veterinarian immediately. If the animal is still in the area, alert the State Veterinarian, law enforcement or animal welfare authorities.
The case for vaccination and education
Rabies is 100% preventable by vaccination. In South Africa, not vaccinating your dog against rabies is illegal. Educating your children on dog behaviour and bite prevention is vital. The more your kids understand about rabies, and about how to approach strange dogs, the greater their chances of avoiding dog bites.
Rabies kills 70 000 people annually. Don’t become a statistic. Vaccinate your dog.