The first rabies vaccine was created more than 100 years ago, and effective vaccines for animals and humans have been available now for decades. So why is an initiative like World Rabies Day still important?
Rabies vaccines are indeed highly effective at preventing both infection and spread of this disease. But vaccines alone can’t do the job without programs to implement them appropriately—which means applying them in a long-term, sustainable way—plus raising awareness about the disease’s risks and impact. World Rabies Day was established in 2007 by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) to bring attention to the fight against rabies and the suffering it causes globally—which remains significant.
How significant? How would you describe the global impact of rabies?
Rabies is, quite frankly, one of the scariest diseases we know. It attacks the central nervous system of mammals, human or animal, causing terrible symptoms, and it’s nearly 100% fatal. The virus is endemic in more than 150 countries worldwide1 and spreads easily from animals—both domestic and wild—to people, usually by bites or scratches. Even today, it continues to kill about 160 people a day globally, roughly half of them children.2 Not to mention the ongoing threat it poses to the world's pets and livestock.
That said, rabies is also 100% preventable1 through judicious use of vaccines. Globally speaking, dog bites are by far the most common cause1 of rabies transmission to humans, but vaccinating roughly 70% of a dog population—and maintaining sufficient “herd immunity”—stops virus transmission, thereby reducing the threat to people.1 Other types of vaccination programs target wildlife that can also be part of the chain of transmission. A true “One Health” initiative, World Rabies Day rallies animal and human health communities globally to vaccinate their pets and focus on educating people about how the disease spreads and how they can protect themselves and their animals.
We sometimes see rabies referred to as a “neglected disease”—can you talk about what that means?
A neglected disease is one whose burden is primarily on communities that face poverty and other resource challenges. This is certainly the case with rabies—of the estimated 59,000 people1,2,3 who die from it annually, the vast majority are in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia.1 That statistic is likely a low estimate, because rabies is notoriously under-reported. In the most affected areas, vaccination of domestic animals is not widespread, and people are not always aware of their risk of infection. Moreover, in these poorer countries, especially in remote regions, limited access to healthcare means that individuals who are exposed to rabies often cannot reach medical attention in time to prevent disease.
Then what is the best way to control the spread of rabies and prevent human fatalities?
From a global perspective, by far the most practical and cost-effective way to safeguard humans against rabies is by preventively vaccinating animals—primarily dogs—that are in contact with people. Many of the initiatives tied to World Rabies Day involve government and/or other organizations’ efforts to implement mass dog vaccination campaigns in the most affected countries, while simultaneously educating local people about the risks.
But it’s important to remember that rabies vaccination isn’t a “once-and-done” effort. It needs to be repeated year after year to ensure protection of new generations of animals. World Rabies Day helps serve as a yearly reminder of this ongoing need.
What about in the rest of the world where rabies rates are much lower?
It's true that in most industrialized nations, rabies is well controlled; cases of human exposure are extremely rare thanks to decades of pet vaccination laws and wildlife management efforts. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done! We should view those low rates as a success story, but one that needs to be sustained. A successful rabies program is proactive, staying ahead of the disease, as well as keeping surveillance in place to detect potential outbreaks as early as possible.
In a globalized world, cross-border travel and animal importation (both legal and illegal) mean that cases of rabies can arise even in "low-risk" countries. Moreover, wildlife can always pose a threat, and with increasing urban and suburban sprawl, these wild species are living in closer-than-ever proximity to humans and domestic animals. So we must remain vigilant about this deadly disease, keeping the public educated about their potential for exposure and reminding animal owners to keep their pets’ vaccinations current.
What’s Merial’s role in the fight against rabies?
Rabies prevention is a big part of our legacy and remains central to our company's identity. Merial is the global leader in rabies vaccines for animals, with a portfolio that covers many species, including dogs, cats, livestock, and wildlife. That leadership traces back to our origins in the Mérieux Biological Institute, which developed the world’s first inactivated cell-cultured rabies vaccine, and laid the groundwork for the animal health business that became Merial nearly a century later. The Institute's founder, Marcel Mérieux, actually trained with the great French virologist Louis Pasteur, creator of the very first rabies vaccine—the September 28 date for World Rabies Day commemorates Pasteur’s death.
We are proud to use the "Joining Forces" tagline for World Rabies Day because that really reflects our approach to this fight—a collaborative effort among many stakeholders.Joanne Maki, Merial Veterinary Public Health
But again, fighting rabies requires so much more than vaccines alone! That's why for decades now Merial has partnered with public health authorities, global health agencies such as the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), local communities, and others to provide our vaccines, offer technical and strategic expertise, and support awareness campaigns. We are proud to use the "Joining Forces" tagline for World Rabies Day because that really reflects our approach to this fight—a collaborative effort among many stakeholders.
What do you think have been the biggest achievements of World Rabies Day over the past 10 years? And what are the big challenges for the next 10?
The message of World Rabies Day has really resonated globally—within its first few years, participation far exceeded expectations. I think the big achievement lies in how this global initiative has empowered people to take ownership of rabies prevention locally. The most successful programs aren't a top-down-authorized, one-time round of vaccination. Rather, they're grassroots efforts that are owned and perpetuated by local communities to maintain the long-term health and safety of their people and animals. The combined effort of many people has demonstrated that a One Health approach can work.
The biggest challenge ahead is simply that rabies is not going away. We’ve been fighting it successfully for decades, but it's not a disease we can ever eradicate entirely. So protection comes from a commitment to long-lasting programs. Keeping rabies prevention top-of-mind can be tough to maintain with an "old news" disease. Rabies often doesn't always get the same media buzz and health resources as newer, emerging threats. But there are amazing teams out there keeping our message front and center, and I have no doubt the coming years will bring even more victories in our battle against rabies.
3. Hampson K, Coudeville L, Lembo T, SamboM, Kieffer A, Attlan M, et al. (2015) Estimating the Global Burden of Endemic Canine Rabies. PloS Negl Trop Dis 9(4): e0003709. doi:10.1371/journal. pntd.0003709