Durban – KwaZulu-Natal is fighting a spike in rabies, a disease that kills one person every 10 minutes, and joins the UN in trying to stop it becoming a pandemic.
The disease has claimed the lives of three children – possibly four – within eThekwini Municipality since July, according to the provincial department of agriculture.
By the end of last month, 122 dogs had tested positive.
eManzimtoti SPCA said the tally so far this year had already risen more than 100% compared with the entire number of cases last year.
“We have dealt with 41 cases so far. During the whole of last year we had 16,” said manager Tracey Girling.
She attributed the high number to the impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns on immunising, people not sterilising their pets, leading to more births and often more strays.
On the other side of the city, in Springfield, the Durban and Coastal branch of the SPCA reported having treated 10 cases since April.
“Four were this month and in dogs owned by people, saying their pets were unwell. It turned out to be rabies,” said Tanya Fleischer.
The Kloof branch seems to have been spared.
“(Last year) we had four positive cases and thankfully for the year of 2020 we have had only one positive case,” said manager Barbara Patrick. “However, we still encourage pet owners to make sure their pets’ vaccinations are up to date.”
Adding to the problem has been the safety of the provincial department’s immunisation crew, especially in townships such as uMlazi where a mass campaign is under way, the department said.
More than 200 000 doses of vaccine had been issued across the province for campaigns which “have been limited by security and hijackings and Covid. However, momentum is gaining”.
It said the latest human fatality was a 4-year-old boy in Mariannhill earlier this month.
Last month, a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old, also boys, died in Umbumbulu and uMlazi. A death involving a 3-year-old boy, also from Umbumbulu, in July, remains unconfirmed but “probable”.
Monday is World Rabies Day, and the UN Food and Agriculture Programme has pledged to eradicate the disease by 2030.
“Latest stats from the World Health Organization (WHO) state that up to 59 000 people die from rabies annually, amounting to an alarming figure of one rabies death every 10 minutes,” said pet food company Hills.
“While Covid-19 has increased our germ protection awareness, controlled unnecessary movement, and prohibited large gatherings, all decreasing seasonal cold and flu numbers, what it has also unfortunately led to is a setback of several public health programmes, including rabies.
“According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) Centre for Emerging Zoonotic and Parasitic Diseases, there may have been rabies cases that have gone unrecognised and unreported.”
World Rabies Day has been observed annually on September 28 since 2007.
“This year’s theme ‘End Rabies: Collaborate, Vaccinate’, will again raise awareness about the disease and bring together partners to enhance prevention and control efforts worldwide.
“Major health organisations including WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations have pledged to eliminate human deaths from dog-transmitted rabies by 2030.”
It added that while rabies is a 100% vaccine-preventable disease, it is neglected, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia.
“According to WHO, 56% of global human rabies fatalities occur in Asia and 44% in Africa.”
Pet nutritionist and vet adviser Guy Fyvie said: “If not dealt with effectively, rabies could once again become a serious public health pandemic.”
He said dog bites caused almost all human rabies cases in South Africa, and globally, with vaccinations being the most effective way to reduce the risk of this disease.
“Although the tried-and-tested strategies for controlling and preventing the disease exist, it is not always prioritised and invested in,” he said.
“Locally, the disease is still very present, particularly in rural areas where many dogs are not vaccinated against the virus.
“In addition, rabies is commonly reported among stray or feral dogs and cats.”
In South Africa it is law that pets are vaccinated against rabies.
Dogs and cats should receive their first rabies vaccinations before three months of age. They’ll receive their second vaccination at three months, a third within 12 months, and once a year after that.
Rabies is spread to humans and other animals through contact with saliva or tissue of infected animals, scratches, bites, licks on broken skin and mucous membranes of the lips or eyes.
“Sadly, it is children who are especially at risk of encountering rabies infected animals, because they are more inclined to want to play with them.”
Fyvie added: “Affected animals also lose their fear and will approach people and places they normally don’t.
“Parents should keep a close eye on their children and discourage them in all circumstances from interacting with feral, stray or unfamiliar animals that may be acting abnormally.”
How to keep safe from rabies:
- Children under the age of 15 make up 40% of the reported cases of being bitten by a suspected rabies-infected animal. It is important to warn children of the risks of interacting with strays and pets that are not theirs or that are acting differently.
- Never take a chance. If bitten, scratched or in contact with their saliva, assume the worst and follow the treatment protocol. There is simply nothing that can be done once the symptoms present themselves.
- Ensure your pets’ rabies vaccinations are up to date and when in an immediate outbreak area, have pets revaccinated. If one can’t provide proof of a pet’s vaccination status, they may be euthanised, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms or not.
- Never let your pets roam the streets.
- Do not let your pets interact with unknown animals. An animal can become infected by fighting with another animal, even over a fence.
- Do not approach stray dogs or cats, especially if they are showing abnormal behaviour, such as being aggressive or very docile.
- If you suspect an animal is infected, contact the health authorities immediately. Do not try to restrain the animal yourself.
- Donate to a welfare organisation that conducts rabies vaccination outreach programmes. The higher the vaccinated animal population, the less chance there is of an outbreak.
The Independent on Saturday