GETTING THE JAB: Lady is vaccinated for rabies by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. All cats and dogs should be vaccinated against the disease. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/ANA

The responsibility lies with owners to vaccinate their pets, writes Dr Jacqueline Weyer.

Rabies - a word that instills fear and thoughts of a fierce dog with blood-shot eyes and dripping drool about to pounce on its unknowing victim. 

Although this may seem to be a far-fetched scene from a horror movie, it is not. Rabies is a reality in South Africa - ask the families that have lost loved ones to this horrifying disease.

Rabies has been occurring in many parts of South Africa at an increasing rate in the past 10 years, often reported from locations where it has not been a problem before.

But what is rabies? Rabies is a fatal disease, caused by a virus that infects the brain and central nervous system - the most sensitive organ in our bodies that controls all our other organs and systems. Once the symptoms of the disease appear there is currently no medical intervention to save the life of the victim.

The virus is spread from infected warm-blooded animals, in most cases domestic dogs that themselves are affected by the disease. These animals will also suffer and can transmit the virus through their infected saliva before ultimately dying.

People can be exposed through bites, but scratches and nicks that break the skin can also serve as the route for virus-laden saliva to enter the body of the victim. Most human rabies victims have been children, often from impoverished communities where access to veterinary and medical healthcare is not ideal.

Nevertheless, although a fatal disease with no cure, rabies can be prevented. First and foremost, the vaccination of dogs and cats provides not only protection for the vaccinated animal, but also indirectly protects humans who may have contact with those animals.

It has been shown, time and again, that the more dogs are vaccinated, the less human rabies cases are reported. In South Africa, vaccination of dogs and cats is mandated by law and the responsibility lies with pet owners to ensure that their animal companions are vaccinated for rabies and that their vaccination status remains up to date. But because we are failing to vaccinate enough dogs (and cats) the risk of human exposure remains.

When a victim is bitten, or otherwise exposed to a potentially rabid animal, it is therefore imperative that the person seeks medical attention as a matter of urgency. If potentially exposed, the individual must receive rabies post- exposure prophylaxis, a regimen of preventative treatment that can ensure that the infection is not established in the exposed person.

This treatment requires, firstly and simply, proper washing of the bite or other wounds with soap and water. A healthcare professional will then assess the case and rabies vaccination and rabies antibodies provided in order to prevent the infection from occurring.

The front line of the fight against rabies is the protection of dogs (and cats) and that requires us to vaccinate them against the disease. It is that simple. Vaccinate your pets today!

The Star

* Weyer is from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

For more information about outbreaks of rabies and how to prevent the disease, please visit the National Institute for Communicable Diseases website: www.nicd.ac.za