Last updated on Jun 17th, 2021 at 02:27 pm

According to a report from The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), there have been five confirmed cases of rabies in humans in South Africa up until July this year. This resulted in the deaths of two children.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rabies is still responsible for close to 60 000 deaths globally every year. Most of these deaths occur in Africa and Asia. “While our track record of rabies prevention in South Africa looks relatively impressive, the threat of contracting rabies from infected animals is ever present, especially in our rural areas where many pet dogs are not vaccinated against the virus,” says Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai.

Dr Nasiha Soofie, medical head for Sanofi Pasteur Vaccines in South Africa adds that one person dies of a rabies infection every 15 minutes.

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Rabies misconceptions

According to Dr Vincent there are some widely held misconceptions about rabies parents should be made aware of. “Many people don’t realise that it is possible to contract rabies when the saliva from an infected animal comes into contact with an open wound or mucous membrane. One of the deaths reported by the NICD this year was of a child who had no signs of being bitten, but was known to spend a lot of time with the neighborhood’s dogs.”

Another common misconception is that all animals infected with rabies become highly aggressive. “There are two different strains of the virus, which can cause quite different symptoms, with some rabid animals becoming very docile rather than aggressive,” Dr Vincent points out.

Preventing rabies

Rabies is a vaccine-preventable viral disease. Dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths, contributing up to 99% of all rabies transmissions to humans.

Having your domestic animals, including cats and dogs, vaccinated against rabies is essential. It’s important to note that animals must be vaccinated annually otherwise they will not remain protected from the disease.

Other tips to prevent rabies:

  • Watch for any change in behaviour in an animal, rather than just aggression. Infected wild animals, for example, may lose their fear of humans and become easily approachable.
  • Stay away from stray dogs or any animal displaying strange and unusual behaviour. Children, especially are at risk of coming into contact with infected animals, as they are inclined to want to play with animals, so keep a close eye on them and discourage them from interacting with wild and stray animals.
  • Keep your pets away from animals that may not be vaccinated.
  • Make sure your pets’ and livestock’s rabies vaccinations are up to date.

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What to do in the event of potential exposure

“Immediate, effective wound washing, and treatment followed by a rabies vaccine, is critical to prevent the progression of a rabies infection, onset of rabies symptoms and death,” says Dr Soofie.

Dr Vincent stresses, however, that treatment must start within 24 hours and must be correctly administered.

If you suspect that you, or one of your children, has come into contact with a rabid animal, Dr Vincent has the following advice:

  • Wash the affected/and or bitten area thoroughly with soap and water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Immediately take the person/child to a clinic that can provide post exposure prophylaxis immediately. Speed is of the essence when it comes to the management of the bite or exposure in order to prevent the virus from attacking the nervous system.