With rabies infections on a worrying rise in South Africa, this World Rabies Day we should pay special attention to the signs and symptoms of rabies to help stop the spread.
Following an increase in cases reported to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) in 2020, up to 294 from 257 the year before, State Vet Dr Alicia Cloete has reported a worryingly high 350 cases reported up to July 2021.
The Department and Dr Cloete are pushing to increase vaccinations around the country, in dogs in particular. She says the aim is to vaccinate at least 70% of dogs to see a decrease in numbers, both in animals and humans.
The Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal have been hardest hit by the current outbreak. To date, more than 150 cases of rabies in dogs have been confirmed in the Eastern Cape and more than 200 in KZN. Last month (August) two cases of dog rabies were confirmed in Khayelitsha in Cape Town while a nine-year old child was confirmed to have died as a result of a rabid dog bite in Thohoyandou, Limpopo earlier this year. In early August, cases in the Cradle of Humankind area were reported.
All pet owners, according the Animals Diseases Act, are required by law to vaccinate their pets against rabies. The virus affects both domestic and wild animals, and people are encouraged not to approach suspected rabid animals ~ particularly stray dogs or cats. On smallholdings, wild animals such as the mongoose can also carry the virus and should be avoided.
According to DALRRD as well as the SA Veterinary Council, suspected and known rabies cases must be reported to your state or private veterinarian, Animal Health Technician or the police.
Animals that have rabies secrete large amounts of the virus in their saliva, so the disease is primarily passed through a bite from an infected animal. It can also be transmitted through a scratch or when infected saliva makes contact with mucous membranes or an open, fresh wound. The risk runs highest if a pet is exposed to wild animals.
Initially, a dog that has become infected may show behavioral changes such as restlessness or nervousness, both of which may present as aggression. Friendly dogs may become irritable, while normally excitable animals may become more docile. A dog may bite or snap at other animals, humans and even inanimate objects. They may constantly lick, bite and chew at the site where they were bitten. A fever may also be present.
As the virus progresses, an infected dog may become hypersensitive to touch, light and sound. They may eat unusual things and hide in dark places. Paralysis of the throat and jaw muscles may follow, resulting in the well-known symptom of foaming at the mouth. Disorientation, unco-ordination and staggering may occur, caused by paralysis of the hind legs. Other classic signs of rabies include loss of appetite, weakness, seizures and sudden death.
The virus can incubate from two to eight weeks before symptoms are shown. However, transmission of the virus through saliva can happen as early as ten days before symptoms appear.
Once symptoms appear, there is no treatment or cure and the disease is fatal.
Humans that have had contact with rabies-infected animals must wash the wound well with soap under running water and immediately contact their doctor to receive preventative treatment. This treatment must be administered immediately, or the virus will become fatal in the human, too.
To find out about post-exposure prophylaxis for humans, call either the Rabies Hotline on 0800 212 552 or the Vaccine Helpline on 0860 160 160 (during office hours), according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.