By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
Rabies is a viral disease that leads to the death of approximately 55,000 deaths worldwide each year. If individuals are exposed to the virus and prophylactic measures are not taken, the disease can be fatal.
The prevention of rabies is particularly important because it is usually too late to treat the virus by the time symptoms of the disease become recognizable. Instead, it is recommended that populations residing in or travelling to areas with a high-risk of rabies take appropriate precautions to avoid the fatal effects of the disease.
This includes avoiding contact with animals possibly affected by the virus, as well as the appropriate vaccinations to prevent the virus from taking hold and causing the clinical condition.
Vaccination of Domestic Pets
At the beginning on the 20th century, the vaccination of all domestic pets became customary in many developed nations. This made a significant difference on the prevalence of rabies in the animals in these regions and helped to reduce the number cases of humans with animal bites and suspected risk rabies.
The vaccination of the majority of animals has led to a dramatic improvement in number of rabies cases reported. This is evident when considering countries that have enforced this practice, such as in America and Europe, where the incidence of rabies has steadily declined over the past century. Contrary to Asia and Africa, for example, where the risk of contracting rabies is much higher and these programs have not been enforced as attentively.
Caution in High-Risk Areas
As different areas of the world are associated with a higher risk of rabies, it is important for individuals in areas of high risk – either as residents or as travellers – to take appropriate precautions to help in the prevention of rabies.
It is recommended to maintain some distance from stray animals in these areas and avoid petting or feeding them. Up to 40% of people that report an animal bite and suspected rabies are children under the age of 15, which is likely to be as a result of them coming into closer contact with stray animals. Therefore, it is important that children living in or travelling to high-risk areas are properly educated about the risk of rabies and avoiding close contact with unknown animals.
Additionally, for people travelling to high-risk areas, it may be appropriate to be vaccinated against rabies before travelling. This depends on the activities the individual plans to undertake during their trip, but for many travellers it can be a justifiable precaution to ensure a safer trip.
Post-Exposure Prophylaxis Vaccination
If an animal that is suspected to have rabies bites an individual, a series of vaccinations for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is recommended. As symptoms usually develop when it is too late to treat the condition effectively, it is important for all individuals at risk to be vaccinated after suspected exposure, regardless of symptoms present.
PEP involves injections of rabies immunoglobulin and vaccine shortly after exposure to the virus, with four successive vaccines injected over the next 14 days. This technique is known to be extremely effective and helps approximately 15 million people with possible cases of rabies each year worldwide. It is expected to prevent the disease and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people annually.
If the appropriate precautions are taken, it is possible to prevent rabies from affecting the population. This involves a broad approach, including reducing the risk of rabies in an area by the vaccination of animals. For people in high-risk areas, close contact with stray animals should be avoided and, if bitten, PEP should be administered to prevent the virus from causing fatal results.
Last Updated: Apr 28, 2015