Beware of rabies in all animals – hospital group warns

Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Medicross in Tokai, Cape Town has warned the public of rabies. Pictures by BHEKI RADEBE

Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Medicross in Tokai, Cape Town has warned the public of rabies. Pictures by BHEKI RADEBE

Published Jun 24, 2024


Dogs are not the only animals that can transmit rabies to humans, although it is the most common cause of human rabies.

Livestock, cats, wildlife, especially mongooses and bats, are all potential carriers of the disease, and new concerns have been raised after a Cape fur seal tested positive for rabies.

“KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, the North West and Limpopo have seen the lion’s share of documented rabies cases in recent years, yet the detection of animal rabies in Cape Town is an important reminder that all animal bites should be medically assessed for rabies risk. Greater public awareness of rabies and ongoing vigilance is needed throughout South Africa,” Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Medicross in Tokai, Cape Town, warned.

He said previously, seal bites have been considered low risk for rabies, however, recent developments indicate the urgent need for post-exposure prophylaxis and antibiotics, as advised by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD).

The virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals, either when they bite or when their saliva comes into contact with an open wound or the eyes, nose or mouth of another animal or an individual.

“Anyone who is bitten by an animal should always seek emergency medical care, no matter how small the wound is, for an assessment. A rabies risk screening with possible tetanus immunisation as treatment for potential exposure to the virus that causes rabies must start as soon as possible,” Mande Toubkin, Netcare’s general manager of emergency, trauma and transplants, advised.

The most important step for anyone who is bitten is to immediately clean the wound with soap and clean running water for 10 minutes to help wash as much of the virus away as possible, then seek medical care.

“Even if the wound is not bleeding badly, there should be no delay in seeking treatment. Rabid animals may be aggressive or even over-friendly. This is abnormal behaviour for the species and they are therefore more likely to bite other creatures and humans,” Toubkin said.

Toubkin added that cows with rabies may look like they are choking, and wild animals such as buck may display unusual behaviour, such as coming closer to humans that they are not habituated to.

“However, noticeable signs of rabies are not always present, and so a medical assessment is essential.”

She pointed out that any domesticated animal that bites a human that does not have a complete and current record of vaccinations could pose a rabies risk to humans and other animals.

“Teach adults and children not to approach animals they do not know and not to provoke any animal. It is especially important not to feed wildlife or approach animals that are wild, and be sure to have your dogs, cats and other domesticated animals vaccinated yearly for rabies, as required,” she said.

She also advised people to as far as possible, keep pets away from wild or stray animals. This not only helps to protect your family and your animals but also contributes to breaking the cycle of rabies transmission to animals in the wild that cannot be vaccinated.

Dr Vincent, meanwhile, said that post-exposure vaccination for rabies usually involves a series of injections for a period of up to a month.

“If treatment commences as soon as possible and the full course is correctly administered, humans exposed to rabies will almost certainly not develop the disease.”

According to Vincent, this is the only chance of preventing the progression of the virus, as once a person develops clinical signs of rabies, there is no cure, and the condition is invariably fatal.

“The good news is that rabies infection in humans is preventable. With timeous treatment and adherence to the recommended precautions, we can all protect ourselves against this disease.”

This advice followed on the heels of a case of rabies confirmed earlier this month in a wild Cape fur seal from Big Bay, Blouberg, in Cape Town.

It is said that suspected positive results have also been received for seals sampled at Strand on May 15 and in Muizenberg on May 26.

The Western Cape Veterinary Services, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, the City of Cape Town Coastal Management, and other partners are working to establish the origin and extent of the outbreak through further sampling and testing.

They said that once determined, a management plan will be formulated.

Rabies has not been detected in seals in Southern Africa, and this is one of very few detections in seals worldwide.

Pretoria News