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Study: Rabies Kills 59,000 People Annually

FILE - A Balinese volunteer holds culled dogs suspected of being infected with rabies at Kutuh village in Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia, Feb. 4, 2009.
FILE - A Balinese volunteer holds culled dogs suspected of being infected with rabies at Kutuh village in Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia, Feb. 4, 2009.

Canine rabies kills tens of thousands of people every year and costs economies billions of dollars. A new global study said understanding the true burden of the disease may result in more resources to prevent it.

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Dr. Louise Taylor is with the Global Alliance for Rabies Control and is coordinator of the Partners for Rabies Prevention Group.

Taylor said while the tools exist to prevent deaths from rabies, they’re not being used in many countries hardest hit by the disease.

“At the moment, our best estimate from this recent study is that about 59,000 people across the world are dying of rabies every year," she said. "And that’s just the burden from canine rabies transmitted by dogs.”

“So, aside from the deaths that we have, we have problems with the income that those people could have generated. And so there’s a wider societal cost that’s impacting heavily on developing countries, particularly. And then there are all the costs in terms of the control efforts that are being put in," Taylor continued. "So although control efforts are not adequate to prevent all the deaths, they are preventing a large number of deaths. So, when we add up all those costs together this recent study has basically come out and said: a total cost of about $8.6 billion to the global economy every year.”

Rabies is spread mostly by dogs, even though it exists in many bats. Men and boys generally receive more bites from infected dogs than women and girls.

Taylor said, “It does tend to affect children slightly disproportionately and the WHO estimates probably about 40 to 60 percent of the victims are children under the age of about 16. And that comes about because with it being transmitted by dogs children tend to be attracted towards dogs. And they may not understand exactly how to behave around a dog. They may provoke the dog a little bit more than maybe an adult would. And so they tend to both be affected more by dog bites and also by more severe dog bites.”

Africa, Asia and Latin America are regions where rabies is endemic.

While vaccinating dogs is routine in the U.S. and other developed countries, that’s not the case in many developing nations. It costs between one and five dollars to vaccinate a dog if done on a massive scale, like in the United States. But Taylor said that can be a financial hardship for a poor family.

“In the developing world, the infrastructure of the veterinary systems and also the health systems is just much less developed," Taylor said. "And there are just not wide-scale distribution networks for vaccination. We’re also looking at a population that is really at the poor end of the spectrum. And so those people do not necessarily have the money available to vaccinate their dogs. And there’s also an awareness issue as well that we need to build awareness that this can be prevented.”

Taylor described the study’s findings as a current situation report of global rabies control.

“These countries have many other health priorities. It’s a very difficult balance. And what we found is that canine rabies just doesn’t seem to get the attention that it really should have amongst these other competing priorities,” she said.

In fact, The World Health Organization has classified canine rabies as a neglected tropical disease. Taylor would like rabies to be among health priorities included in the new Sustainable Development Goals later this year.

Because so many dogs are not vaccinated, large numbers of people must be treated after they are bitten. They must receive a series of injections to prevent the nearly always fatal disease.

For example, Taylor said in Asia 26 million people receive post-exposure treatment every year. Fifteen million of them are in China. But in Africa, many people bitten by a rabid dog have no access to life-saving treatment.

Prevention, she said, is the easiest way to save lives, both animal and human.