MJ Wixsom: Battling rabies in Africa

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 17, 2023

This week, I taught the fifth graders about Africa and rabies. Rabies, a deadly zoonotic disease primarily transmitted through dog bites, is a major public health concern in Africa, claiming an estimated 24,000 human lives each year.

The alarming prevalence of this disease has called for an urgent response to prevent its devastating consequences.

During my recent visit to Africa, I had the privilege of contributing to the fight against rabies and witnessed the impact of collaborative efforts in combatting this deadly disease.

Email newsletter signup

Understanding zoonotic diseases
Rabies is classified as a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans. In this context, dogs are the primary reservoir and source of transmission to humans. Understanding the dynamics of such diseases is crucial in addressing not only the immediate health risks but also the long-term implications for communities.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the importance of the One Health approach, which emphasizes collaboration between veterinarians, medical professionals, and wildlife experts. By addressing diseases from a holistic perspective, we can better control and prevent them. It’s worth noting that there’s a coronavirus affecting cats, which may not seem like a significant concern in the short term, but it is virtually always fatal in the long run.

Success stories through mass dog vaccination campaigns
In some African countries, mass dog vaccination campaigns have proven highly effective in reducing rabies cases. Sustainable and widespread vaccination is essential to break the cycle of transmission from dogs to humans. During my time in northern Uganda, we accomplished a remarkable feat by vaccinating over 700 dogs in a single day. Additionally, we spayed or neutered 114 dogs to address the overpopulation issue, further contributing to rabies control.

Empowering communities through education
Community education plays a pivotal role in raising awareness about rabies and fostering responsible pet ownership. Educating individuals about the significance of prompt medical attention after potential rabies exposures is a critical step. It’s fascinating to learn that something as simple as washing your hands after a dog bite can reduce the chance of contracting rabies by up to 50 percent.

The challenge of human post-exposure prophylaxis
While the United States has widespread access to Human Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent rabies, obtaining PEP can be challenging in many parts of Africa. Timely administration is vital, as it can prevent the onset of rabies in exposed individuals. Addressing this challenge is crucial for comprehensive rabies control.

Overcoming barriers and collaborating for success
Limited resources, inadequate infrastructure, and entrenched cultural practices can pose significant barriers to effective rabies control.

Identifying and addressing these challenges is essential to making progress in the fight against rabies.

Collaboration is key. Joining forces with international organizations, NGOs, and neighboring countries can provide the support, resources, and expertise necessary to control and eventually eliminate rabies from the African continent.

The role of legislation and policy
Effective legislation and policies are critical components of rabies control. These might include dog licensing, mandatory vaccination, and penalties for non-compliance. Such measures help create a framework for responsible pet ownership and public safety.

Celebrating success
In our journey to combat rabies in Africa, our efforts were recognized as a success story. Winning the World Rabies Day in the Sub-Sahara region was a significant achievement, highlighting the positive impact of rabies control efforts in specific regions.

My experience in Africa was both eye-opening and emotionally draining.

The widespread poverty I encountered underscored the importance of our work. To decompress and reflect on our efforts, we planned a safari to appreciate the stunning natural beauty that Africa has to offer.

In conclusion, the battle against rabies in Africa is ongoing, but progress is being made through collaborative efforts, education, vaccination campaigns, and the implementation of effective policies.

While the road ahead is challenging, the successes we’ve achieved serve as a beacon of hope, highlighting the possibilities when we unite under the One Health banner to combat zoonotic diseases and make the world a safer place for all. The fifth graders had some interesting things to tell me that they learned. It was a good class.

MJ Wixsom, DVM MS is a best-selling Amazon author who practices at Guardian Animal Medical Center in Flatwoods, Ky. GuardianAnimal.com 606-928-6566