Rabies is a serious disease caused by a virus mostly transmitted to humans by domestic dogs. The virus infects the brain and nervous system, and when the signs and symptoms of the disease appears it cannot be treated. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of a rabid animal, and it is through bites and other injuries that can spread the infected saliva, that other animals or humans may become infected. Many warm-blooded animals (including domestic livestock and wildlife) may become infected with the rabies virus, but nearly all human cases that are reported involved exposures to domestic dogs. In South Africa, few of confirmed human cases have been associated with domestic cat and mongoose exposures.
Does rabies occur in South Africa?
Rabies in animals are continuously reported from various animal species in different locations in South Africa. In 2018, rabies has been reported in dogs from the KwaZulu Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Free State, North West and Limpopo provinces. Two cases of rabies in dogs were also confirmed in Ga-Rankuwa (located about 40 kilometres north of Pretoria), Gauteng Province in November 2018. The disease have also been reported in jackal, mongoose and genets. Livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and horses have also tested positive for rabies in 2018.
How do I protect my family and pets against rabies?
Although not treatable, rabies can be controlled and infection prevented. Dogs and cats can be vaccinated against rabies, which does not only protect the animal from the disease, but also all those that may come into contact with that animal. In South Africa, vaccination of dogs and cats are required by law (from three months of age) and can be routinely accessed through private veterinarians and many animal welfare and non-profit organizations serving communities in South Africa. State veterinary services routinely respond to reports of rabies in animals, and provide strategic vaccination of dog (and cat) populations in affected areas. The public is urged to actively seek out opportunities to ensure that their pets have been vaccinated against rabies and that their immunization schedule remains up to date. This is particularly important ahead of the holiday season and when families bring their pets to holiday destinations around the country.
Since the rabies virus is spread through direct contact with rabid animals, it is advised to generally avoid interaction with strange animals. Rabies disease changes the behaviour of animals – for example, an animal that you would expect to be wild can appear tame. As such, it is important to report all direct contact with wildlife that is out of the ordinary. Do not feed or approach wild animals although they seem friendly. On the other hand, an approachable pet may become aggressive. Report stray dogs and avoid interaction if possible. It is important to teach children how to behave around dogs, cats and other animals, as bites can be prevented in many instances.
What if someone gets bitten?
When potential exposure to rabid animals do occur, the infection can be effectively prevented through rabies post-exposure prophylaxis. This treatment includes thorough washing and treating of all wounds, and the application of rabies vaccine and rabies antibody-therapy. It is important to understand that the rabies virus is transmitted through direct contact with the infected saliva of a rabid animal. Infection may occur when this infected saliva enters the body of a person, either through introduction through a bite, scratch or other injuries that have permeated the skin. Exposures that could have brought animal saliva into contact with a person’s mouth, nose or eyes, or broken skin, should also be reported. This may occur when, for example, a dog licks your face. When such exposures occur, it is important that the advice of a health care practitioner is urgently sought. When rabies is considered a risk, based on the circumstances of the possible exposure, rabies post-exposure prophylaxis must be provided. More information on rabies post-exposure prophylaxis can be accessed from the NICD website.
Rabies can be prevented!