Rabies, a preventable disease that continues to take lives
Rabies is a disease as old as it is known. Despite that fact that it is easily vaccine-preventable, it continues to claim lives.
Dogs are the primary transmitter of rabies to humans. Many populations are still at risk of contracting the disease from unvaccinated animals, particularly those living on the street.
Over the past three decades, countries in the Americas have made great efforts to eliminate rabies transmitted from dogs to humans, reducing deaths from 224 in 1992 to 19 in 2017.
Vaccinating dogs and cats: the most effective measure
While several countries in the region experience very few cases of rabies, in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, interrupting transmission of the disease remains a challenge.
Mass vaccination campaigns for dogs and cats is the most effective strategy for eliminating rabies.
In the region of the Americas, approximately 100 million dogs are vaccinated against rabies each year. In Guatemala alone, more than two million doses of anti-rabies vaccine were administered during a national vaccination campaign that lasted two weeks in 2017.
A logistical challenge
Canine vaccination campaigns are a major endeavor for Ministries of Health in the Americas. This is due to the administration and organization required, as well as factors such as ensuring the vaccine arrives in optimal condition.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) supports countries through the training of personnel on new vaccination techniques, acquisition of supplies and equipment, and the provision of technical support to ensure the success of each activity.
Working together towards a common goal
The anti-rabies vaccination campaign in Guatemala was preceded by a series of PAHO-run training sessions to the capacitate health and veterinary technicians involved.
The Ministry of Health worked alongside public and private institutions to organize the activity and help the country advance from 10% to 80% vaccination coverage.
In order to achieve rabies elimination in the Americas, countries should vaccinate between 80% and 100% of dogs.
New vaccination techniques
During the training sessions in Guatemala, health and veterinary workers learned about new vaccination techniques recommended by WHO to avoid injuries to animals and vaccinators.
PAHO recommends applying the vaccine subcutaneously, instead of intramuscularly. This is less painful for the animal and implies less risk for those administering the vaccine.
Reaching the most isolated
It’s a gray Monday in Tuixcox village, in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Health workers got up early to reach this Mayan-Aguacateca community in order to install an anti-rabies vaccination center, one of the many that the Ministry of Health has created in order to target indigenous, rural and disadvantaged communities.
By 10:00 in the morning of vaccination day, more than 200 dogs have already been vaccinated. Those in charge of the campaign expects the number to triple by the end of the day, given the number of dogs and cats that live in the village. Each one must be vaccinated in order to protect them and avoid transmitting the disease to humans.
During the anti-rabies vaccination campaign, a team of health workers go door-to-door in search of dogs and cats that have not already been vaccinated at a center. This is the only way to ensure that all dogs in the community are protected against rabies.
Responsible pet ownership
In some parts of Guatemala, there are large numbers of street-dogs with no owners. This is a particular challenge for health authorities when it comes to protecting the population against rabies.
In indigenous and rural communities, dogs are often kept on the streets during the day even though most of them have an owner to take them to the vaccination center. Those that have been vaccinated are marked with paint on the head to help identify them.
Few resources but lots of love
In Guatemala, rural populations often come from large families with more than 10 members, as well as pets. According to data collected during the vaccination campaigns, some families own up to five dogs.
Even families with limited economic resources show their love for their animals by taking them to be vaccinated. Vaccination is often too expensive to be carried out privately, so families take advantage of the public health campaigns.
If in doubt, vaccinate
Rabies is a deadly disease once symptoms start to occur, but it is 100% vaccine-preventable. People who have been bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies should receive post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent transmission of the disease.
In the Americas, one million people who have been exposed to rabies receive prophylaxis each year. This is delivered free of charge by health services.
Rabies transmitted by dogs is endemic in Guatemala. Between 2002 and 2017, there were 15 human deaths due to rabies transmitted by a dog. From February 2017 to September 2018, however, there have been no deaths due to rabies.
Children are the most vulnerable
The Díaz brothers live in the small town of Malacatancito, in western Guatemala. During the school vacation, they take their pets to be vaccinated at a temporary center in their neighborhood.
Children play a vital role in vaccination days alongside their parents, particularly as they are the most vulnerable to attacks from dogs. Globally, children under the age of 15 make up 40% of all those bitten by an animal suspected to be carrying rabies.
The Region of the Americas seeks to eliminate rabies transmitted by dog by 2022. This will save the lives of thousands of animals and people in the region.