Awareness needed to curb rabies
It’s estimated that about 55 000 people die of rabies in Africa and Asia every year and over half a million animals die as a result of rabies.
Rabies is a viral disease passed from an infected animal to a human through biting or scratching. In both humans and animals it is deemed fatal once it enters the Central Nervous System, with only a handful of survivors. Already 9 human cases that resulted in death have been confirmed in South Africa this year; 3 in the Eastern Cape, 2 in Kwa Zulu-Natal, 1 in Mpumalanga and 3 in Limpopo.
Experts in the medical fraternity have described this as worrying, saying people need to be aware of rabies. Professor Lucille Blumberg of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, NICD, says her institution deals with up to 20 cases of human rabies per year. She says once a person is bitten by a stray animal, they should immediately do the following three things.
‘The important thing is to wash the wound very well, so you physically remove the virus. You can wash with whatever is available – any soap. Second thing is, if there is break in the skin, like blood, you have to go to the clinic and get concentrated antibodies. It will neutralise the virus once injected into the wound. Thirdly, you get a course of rabies vaccine from a clinic that will stimulate your own immune system to produce anti-rabies virus antibodies’, she said.
‘But for communities who don’t have access to a health facility, the washing of the wound is very important’ she added.
Professor Blumberg says the disease is 100% fatal with just a few survival stories.
‘Once the virus has entered the nerve on the side of the bite, it will travel along the nerve to the brain where it will cause this rabies disease. But once it enters the nerve, there is nothing you can do. Rabies is 100% fatal. There have been really just a handful of survivors. It’s one of the diseases with the highest fatality rate’, said Blumberg.
In Kwa Zulu-Natal, animal rabies is highly prevalent. The Agriculture and Environmental Affairs Department has attributed this to the very dense population living in small areas and the high number of stray dogs. Kevin Le Roux, Project Manager of the rabies project in Kwa-Zulu Natal, says the dogs are mostly uncontrolled and not vaccinated. He describes some of the symptoms of rabies in animals.
‘You have a change in behaviour, the dog becomes agitated because of this virus in its brain, it starts losing its territorial instincts, so it leads to the dog roaming, bites at foreign objects, it runs to strange vehicles and chases vehicles, it can just attack viciously anything – a human or a car. As it progresses, the dog starts getting in-coordinated with paralysis of the legs, then salivation and, eventually, death. It’s normally a short period. Within 3 days it can die’, said Le Roux.
According to Professor Louis Nel of the University of Pretoria, rabies has received little attention over the years due to lack of information. ‘It’s a disease people are not very well aware of. When you talk to people about it they say ‘oh, do people get rabies?’
Human rabies is common in children below the age of 15, with up to 30 ‘ 50% of deaths occurring within that age group. Medical experts also say that with common challenges like poverty, poor health systems and financial constraints, developing countries are most at risk of having a rabies problem.
‘About 55 000 people die per year. That’s 99% in Africa and Asia. In Northern America, you find it in wild life like racoons and bats, but no dogs. Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand are free of rabies. They don’t have this problem. The developing world faces the largest burden of rabies problem’, said Professor Nel.
The symptoms in humans include agitation, headaches, difficulty to swallow, mental disorders, uncontrolled spasms, which can lead to paralysis and death.