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Eradicating Rabies as Simple as Vaccinating Your Dog, Study Says

Sep 26, 2014 10:21 AM EDT

When we picture what rabies looks like, we imagine a dog foaming at the mouth, violent and unpredictable. But to prevent a real-life Cujo from happening, researchers from Washington State University (WSU) say the answer is as simple as vaccinating your dog.

A rabies vaccine for humans has long existed, developed by French scientist Louis Pasteur in 1885. The deadly rabies virus is easily preventable, and yet 69,000 people worldwide succumb to the disease each year - that's 189 a day. About 40 percent of these cases are among children, mostly in Africa and Asia. And once a person develops symptoms - including fever, general weakness or discomfort, slight paralysis, confusion, or hydrophobia (fear of water), according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - the chance of death is nearly 100 percent.

"The irony is that rabies is 100 percent preventable. People shouldn't be dying at all," veterinary infectious disease expert Guy Palmer, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

But researchers say all this can be easily avoided through cost-effective mass dog vaccination programs. Published in the journal Science, the WSU team launched dog vaccination clinics in Tanzania. Working in 180 villages, they vaccinated as many as 1,000 dogs in a single day. Since the program began in 2003, the number of people killed by rabies has dropped from an average of 50 each year to almost zero. According to the study's lead author Felix Lankester, based in East Africa, vaccinating 70 percent of the dogs in the region broke the route of transmission from dogs to humans.

Rabies is transmitted, obviously, through the bite of an animal. Typically we think of a dog, but it can also occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, the CDC writes. The rabies virus attacks our central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death.

The researchers believe complacency and lack of international effort is, at least in part, to blame for the persistence of this disease. They see it as a "global health priority" to eradicate rabies, especially since these mass dog vaccination programs are "epidemiologically and logistically feasible, cost-effective and socially equitable," they concluded.

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