A webinar on rabies hosted by the National Animal Health Forum painted a bleak picture of South Africa’s fight against rabies outbreaks. Detection of the lethal virus – transmissible from animals to humans – is showing an upward trend, say experts, and greater collaboration is required to curb its spread.
Ahead of World Rabies Day, marked on 28 September every year, the National Animal Health Forum (NAHF) invited top speakers to discuss the current state of rabies spread in the country.
The webinar, hosted in partnership with the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development (DALRRD) zoomed in on a range of topics that included preventing, recognising and reporting rabies in animals, the impact of rabies in communities as well as facts and myths around the deadly virus.
In her presentation, Dr Mpho Maja, director for animal health at the DALRRD, confirmed that “the rabies situation in the country is not looking good”.
However, she pointed out that World Rabies Day was an opportunity for all role players globally to unite as a community in the fight against rabies.
Maja pointed out that two in three countries worldwide still have humans, mainly children, being killed by rabies.
“That is a lot of people and a lot of countries. We need to hold hands to make sure that this number declines and we protect especially our children.
“In 2015, the world called for action by setting a goal of zero dog-mediated human rabies deaths worldwide by 2030. We are already in 2021, which means we have very limited time to achieve those goals.”
The disease ‘can fool anyone’
Highlighting the disturbing upward trend in South Africa, state veterinarian Dr Alicia Cloete said that in 2019, 257 rabies cases in animals were officially reported to DALRRD. This statistic rose to 294 in 2020.
“In 2021, up until the end of July, we are at just over 350 rabies-positive laboratory results, which amounts to roughly 1.5 cases detected per day. So we can clearly see that, unfortunately, we are on an upward trend regarding the numbers of animals with rabies detected.”
Cloete cautioned that this number was an underestimation of what the numbers truly are in the country.
In her presentation, Cloete emphasised that the disease cycle must be broken, adding, “If we can vaccinate enough dogs to cover more than 70% of the dog population, then we will see a drastic drop in rabies cases in animals and we’ll see a lot fewer human cases.”
According to a report published this month by the national department of health and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) South Africa has had an average of ten human cases per year for the past decade. Most transmissions happen through the virus-laden saliva of domestic dogs and the World Health Organization (WHO) says that, once clinical symptoms appear, rabies is almost 100% fatal.
Kevin le Roux, a member of the national rabies advisory group of South Africa, pointed out that the disease can fool anyone when trying to recognise it in animals. “As students we used to bet on what rabies looked like, but I don’t bet on rabies anymore because it can really fool anybody.
“In KwaZulu-Natal we saw that 70% of our samples come from experienced people. However, 74% of those samples which they thought could really be rabies, were not rabies.
“Not even experts always know what rabies looks like. This disease can appear anywhere, any time and not look like what we think it is.”
Challenges in rural communities
While veterinary services reach rural communities when notified of concerns and suspects, there are challenges.
According to Dr Vanessa Meyer, a member of the rabies awareness body in Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal, rabies outbreaks in far-flung rural areas and farming communities do pose some challenges.
“That’s where our mass rabies campaigns come into play. There are huge challenges with staff numbers and Covid-19 has interfered greatly with our campaigns in terms of reaching these areas,” she pointed out.
The potential to affect anyone
According to Dr Didi Claassen, Afrivet’s executive for technical and marketing support, the large number of recent outbreaks emphasises that no matter where one lives in South Africa, the virus has the potential to affect you.
It can happen due to spill-over from wildlife cycles or infected dogs imported into the area from areas more severely affected. Afrivet urges pet owners to ensure that their dogs and cats are vaccinated against rabies.
In a press release issued by Afrivet, Claassen wrote that they want to remind South Africans, “We do not have to fear rabies. We simply need to do our part, make sure that our pets are vaccinated and report suspect animals.”
The main message she wants the country to hear on World Rabies Day, is that vaccination of pets is the only hope of controlling this ghastly disease.
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