Rabies: The Facts
Rabies! The very mention of it scares most of us, conjuring up images of dogs frothing at the mouth, innocent children being bitten, incredibly painful treatments, and nurses comforting weeping parents.
I remember as a child being taken on family holiday to France. The minute we arrived in Calais we were strictly forbidden to touch any French dog for fear of rabies. I'm sure that today there are still parents making the same rules for their children. Unnecessarily.
The truth of the matter is that the battle was won years ago. No-one has died of rabies contracted in Western Europe since 1924, rabies is increasingly rare (only one dog was diagnosed with it in France last year for example) and today large parts of continental Europe are completely rabies-free.
In the UK, rabies was first eradicated in 1903 after the introduction of quarantine as part of a campaign in 1901, which also included muzzling pet dogs and shooting strays. At that time, of course, rabies was almost inevitably fatal and the most heavy-handed methods of prevention were justifiable. However, once rabies was eradicated vigilance was gradually relaxed. By the First World War dogs were travelling in and out of the country pretty freely.
One example was an Irish terrier called Prince who belonged to one Private James Brown. When his master was posted to France in 1914, Prince was left behind in Hammersmith.
A few weeks later, Prince disappeared - only to turn up in the trenches at Armentières. He had apparently gone back to the railway station to look for his master, got on a train just like his master, and from there on simply followed the soldiers onto the cross-channel ferry and then onto troop transports until he reached the trenches where he tracked down his beloved master. Obviously after such a display of loyalty, Prince became the hero of the regiment. He stayed and fought beside his master for the rest of the war.
Now Prince may not have left the country officially, but after the war he certainly returned with his Commanding Officer's permission. And Prince wasn't alone. The stories of canine bravery during both World Wars are legion and in 1918 many soldiers brought dogs back from the trenches with them.
Sadly but, in a world without vaccines, perhaps inevitably, this influx of hero-dogs led to a fresh outbreak of rabies in the UK and as a result, a new anti-rabies campaign was introduced including tougher quarantine laws.
However, eighty-one years later, we know more about the disease, and reliable vaccines have been developed. Rabies is caused by a virus which attacks the nervous system and affects a wide variety of animals including cats, horses, cows and bats as well as humans and dogs.
An animal can be infected for some months before showing any symptoms but because the virus resides in the brain, it does not show up in a blood test until the symptoms manifest themselves. An infected animal only shows symptoms of rabies (ie mood changes or paralysis) once the disease is very advanced and at that stage is unlikely to survive more than a few days.
Because rabies can't be detected by a blood test, the only sure way to find out if an animal had the disease used to be via quarantine: ie if a dog didn't die of rabies during the quarantine period, then it was safe to assume that it wasn't incubating rabies.
However, nowadays there are vaccines for both animals and humans, and a blood test 30 days after the vaccination shows whether or not a vaccinated dog has produced sufficient antibodies to resist an infection - if it were ever to be bitten by a rabid fox, for example.
Because wild animals can also get rabies, and in many areas actually act as a reservoir for the disease, any campaign has to include wildlife.
At first this action took a rather drastic form - hundreds of foxes, badgers and bats were gassed and/or shot. Eventually however, it was realised that simply shooting wildlife wholesale would only work if entire species were eradicated, so the scientists set to work on other proposals.
In 1978, the Swiss came up with the idea of vaccinating red foxes, which act as the main rabies reservoir in Europe. Various vaccination methods were tried but eventually it was found that dropping fox-bait from helicopters was the most effective; it left no off-putting smells on the land, didn't frighten the foxes as much as land vehicles did, and allowed an even spread of vaccine regardless of the terrain.
In 1989, the European Commission set up a system of grants to enable all EC countries to join the campaign, and as the grants cover territory up to 100kms outside the EC, this has even enabled countries such as Hungary and Poland to participate. By the mid-90's it was obvious that the campaign was working.
Today, even in countries which are still officially infected, like France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, cases of rabies are counted in single figures.
The campaign continues today, and of course every scientist involved in the battle against rabies is working towards total elimination - but in practical terms, the main thrust is to prevent further outbreaks
and recurrences of the disease rather than to fight an endemic infection. These days, 99% of European rabies cases are found in pets which have come from Asia or North Africa without being properly vaccinated.
Approximately 14 million vaccine baits a year are dropped across Europe. People suspected of having been infected with rabies can be treated by a course of simple injections and both people and their pets can be vaccinated.
However the World Health Organisation already classifies large parts of Europe as rabies-free including Cyprus, Finland, Gibraltar, Greece, Ireland, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK. But it can only be a matter of time before rabies is eradicated all across Europe.
So these days if you venture across the channel, you're more likely to get bitten by the local hooch than by a rabid woofer.
If you would like to read more articles, or would like to commission one for your publication, please email me using the form on the contacts page.