Louis Pasteur, a famous French scientist who, among many scientific discoveries, developed the first effective vaccine against rabies, died on September 28th. Now, in his honor, September 28th is recognized as World Rabies Day, a day to reflect on the deadly viral disease that kills around 59,000 people worldwide each year. I first learned about rabies as a young girl from watching the Disney classic, Old Yeller. In this heart-breaking story based on a book written by Fred Gipson, a loyal yellow dog saves his boy from an attack by a mountain lion during an afternoon hike. For his bravery, the dog, Yeller, is infected with rabies having been bitten by the rabid lion. In the heartbreaking final scene (spoiler alert!) the boy must shoot his beloved dog, the very dog that saved his life, as he starts to show signs of increasing aggression due to his rabid state. If you haven’t watched the movie yet, be prepared with a big box of tissues because it’s a real tear-jerker. It still makes me cry.
A devastating disease, rabies is a viral infection that is transmitted through saliva from the bite of an infected animal. The virus slowly travels along nerves, destroying brain tissue and causing behavioral changes, neurological signs and eventually death. All mammals are susceptible to the virus, and in the most endemic countries, bite wounds from infected dogs account for 90% of human rabies exposure and 99% of human deaths due to rabies.
World Rabies Day was initiated in 2007 by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control to increase community awareness of the disease and to educate the public about prevention, especially in the most affected continents, Asia and Africa, with the goal of eliminating rabies infections transmitted through dog bites by the year 2030.
While the infection rates are significantly lower in North America, it is worthwhile to note that, even with a effective vaccine widely available, rabies is still identified each year in almost every state. Approximately 7% of domesticated animals were infected by rabies in the U.S. last year, including eighty-one dogs and over two hundred-fifty cats nationwide. On average, two Americans will die each year from exposure to rabies. In New York City alone, eleven cases of rabies were reported within the last year (2017), and over the past several years, animals testing positive for rabies have been identified in each of the five boroughs. In NYC, raccoons, bats, and skunks are the most common carriers of rabies, though infected stray cats and opossum have also been seen.
In the United States, because rabies is such a deadly disease, rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats are required by law and individually regulated by each state. All dogs, cats, and ferrets should be vaccinated between three and four months of age and then given a booster yearly or every three years depending on the vaccine label. By having your veterinarian vaccinate your pets, you are establishing a barrier between you and potentially infected wildlife. Our pets are more likely to be bitten by wild animals, which puts us in direct contact with this horrible disease. Their protection means our protection. As the old adage says, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, especially in the case of rabies where treatment is still experimental and the survival rate is very low.
Marking September 28 as World Rabies Day reminds us of the importance of vaccinating our animals and to not take for granted that we are safe from this deadly disease. If only Old Yeller had been vaccinated, right?