Partnering with Veterinarians and Clients to End Rabies

Boy carrying two puppies after they have been vaccinated. There is a long line waiting for vaccines behind him.

Beginning in the summer of 2015, the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health is partnering with veterinary clinics and their clients to eliminate rabies as a public health problem worldwide. The goal is zero human deaths by 2030.

“We are partnering with veterinary clinics around the country because together we can do more than we could ever do alone,” says Guy Palmer, WSU Senior Director of Global Health.

Each year more than 59,000 people die from rabies worldwide and about half of those deaths are children under the age of 16. In developed countries, such as the United States, rabies is quite rare because of access to vaccinations. But in many developing countries, rabies is not under control. Globally, more than 99% of human rabies deaths are caused by dog bites—almost all of these in Africa and Asia. Vaccinating 70 percent of the dog population will protect humans and wildlife, such as lions, from the disease.

“Rabies is easily preventable with regular dog vaccinations,” says Palmer.

One of the main reasons rabies continues to be so prevalent in many parts of the world is challenges in getting the vaccinations to the most vulnerable people in resource-poor countries, says Palmer. “In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where the death rates are the highest, there is no reliable system to get vaccinations to where they are needed most.”

Many areas in rural Africa also do not have electricity; currently the vaccine needs to be stored at cold temperatures. And governments in many countries have historically put their resources into treating the disease with postexposure prophylaxis, a series of post-bite inoculations that must be started within the first 24 hours after a person is bitten by a rabid dog. If it is not administered in time and symptoms appear, the disease is always fatal. Because of the narrow window for treatment and the treatment’s high cost, post-exposure prophylaxis has not been effective in reducing deaths in resource-poor countries.

We have all the tools needed to eliminate rabies, we only need to deploy them.

Guy Palmer, WSU Senior Director of Global Health

Research in Tanzania and other countries has now convinced the World Health Organization and national governing bodies that canine vaccination can be effectively used for global elimination, says Palmer. Vaccinations are also a much more cost effective option.

“The direct costs of post-exposure prophylaxis are 20 times higher than the amount spent on dog vaccination in affected countries,” says Palmer. “Even the cost of the vaccine is too much for many families.”

Together with global partners* the Allen School is already making a difference. Each year the vaccination team visits 180 villages in seven districts adjacent to the Serengeti National Park. Each day they vaccinate an average of 300 dogs. The result is that the vaccination zone—a cordon sanitaire—is now rabies free. The Allen School is confident that this rabies-free vaccination zone is an illustrative model for other parts of subSaharan Africa and south Asia.

“We have all the tools needed to eliminate rabies, we only need to deploy them,” says Palmer. “One major challenge is creating a reliable vaccine bank that would provide a consistent and affordable vaccine supply for countries to draw on and then replenish.”

Palmer has set a goal to raise $10 million to develop a reliable vaccine bank and improved distribution in high-risk area of Africa and Asia. Through partnerships with veterinary clinics and others committed to eliminating rabies, Palmer knows they can make an even bigger difference for communities and for the people who live with rabies as a reality every day.

“When I am in Africa working with our vaccination team, I see firsthand how important vaccination is to dog owners,” says Palmer. “Although they may not be able to pay in cash for the vaccine, they will walk many miles just to be able have their dog vaccinated.”

The Allen School has partners around the world including the Global Alliance for Rabies Control as an umbrella organization, the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Our research in Tanzania is in cooperation with the Serengeti Health Initiative and the University of Glasgow.