By Victor Bwire
As Kenyans mark the World Rabies Day in October in Diani, Kwale County, questions still linger to experts why the deadly disease that kills nearly 2,000 Kenyans annually, and which the country promised to eradicate by 2030, is a menace.
The day is held annually around the world to allow animal health practitioners and vets to give back to society by teaching animal owners proper husbandry on the dangers of rabies and related preventive actions.
Transmitted primarily by domestic animals, mainly dogs, but also cats, donkeys and other warm-blooded mammals, nearly half the fatalities from rabies are children under 15. In Kenya, rabies has been ranked as one of the top five priority zoonotic diseases with the goal of eliminating human dog-mediated rabies in the country.
According to the Zoonotic Diseases Unit, the rabies virus, which is transmitted through bites or scratches of infected animals has no cure while many Kenyans who own dogs, cats and donkeys are reluctant to take anti-rabies vaccinations. In a strategy paper, the government plans to rid the country of the incurable disease by 2030 through mass dog vaccination.
It noted that rabies is responsible for approximately 60,000 human deaths worldwide each year. There is a campaign in six high risk counties (Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay, Kitui, Machakos and Makueni) targeting more than 70 per cent of dog population annually for three years.
The emphasis on prevention strategies is premised on the fact that the cost of treating the deadly rabies disease remains way out of reach for many in Kenya. Kenya Veterinary Association secretary general emeritus Kenneth Wameyo said while vets and the government purposed to rid the country of dogs-mediated rabies by 2030, lack of resources and general lack of awareness on the dangers of the disease among the public remain a major challenge.
To help increase public awareness on the disease, Dr Wameyo said they have been running public campaigns jointly with private sector and the educational sector as abroad based approach to enlist the support of the society, given that dogs are traditional animals that are kept by communities.
This year’s World Rabies Day was preceded by a scientific conference that brought together veterinary researchers, doctors, and partners, including drug manufacturers, the government, and animal welfare groups such as World Animal Protection to review progress and map out strategies for raising resources to combat the disease.
The Kenya Strategy notes that humans get infected following a bite or scratch by an infected animal but transmission can also occur when infectious material – usually saliva – comes into direct contact with human mucosa or fresh skin wounds. Human-to-human transmission through bite is possible but rare. In uncommon cases, rabies may be contracted via transplantation of an infected organ.
Ingestion of raw meat or other tissues from animals infected with rabies is not a source of human infection. The incubation period in animals can vary considerably but in dogs and cats, it is between 2 to 12 weeks, although longer incubation periods have been reported.
There are two distinct forms of rabies in animals; furious and dumb forms. Furious form of rabies is the classic “mad-dog syndrome”, and may be seen in all species. The animal becomes irritable and may viciously and aggressively use its teeth, claws, horns, or hooves to attack humans and other animals, without provocation. Such animals lose caution and fear of humans and other animals. Rabid dogs or cats die within 10 days of onset of symptoms.
In humans, the incubation period for rabies is typically 1–3 months, but may vary from below one week to more than a year. The initial symptoms of rabies are fever and often pain or an unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking or burning sensation (paresthesia) at the bite site. As the virus spreads through the central nervous system, progressive, fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops.
Two forms of the disease can follow; furious or paralytic rabies. People with furious rabies exhibit signs of hyperactivity, excited behaviour, and hydrophobia (fear of water) and death after a few days. Paralytic rabies accounts for about 30 percent of the total number of human cases.