by Bryan Slinker, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine
Rabies is never far from our minds here in your College of Veterinary Medicine.
Aside from the occasional bat or other critter in the news, as we heard about here in Washington State this year when a cat was found infected with a strain of bat rabies, most people in the United States pay little heed to rabies. And with good reason. The recent incident in our state was only the fourth time in 25 years a domestic animal has been identified in Washington with rabies. In developed countries, rabies is quite rare in domestic animals because of access to vaccinations and city and state policies that require pets to be vaccinated.
Like Ebola, rabies mostly happens in faraway places and is almost always fatal. But unlike Ebola, which gained understandable attention last year when the West African outbreak reached crisis proportions, rabies goes unnoticed by most of the developed world. Ebola killed more than 11,000 people during the West African outbreak that began in December 2013. This is a tragedy. In that same two-year period, close to 120,000 people died from rabies in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—more than 10 times the number killed by Ebola.
But, also unlike Ebola, for which there is no vaccination, we know how to prevent rabies. We have known how to do this for decades, and yet each year about 60,000 people die from it. Why? If we know how to prevent it, why does this have to happen year after year? Poverty. Hard-to-reach places. Weak infrastructures. That is why. These deaths occur in the developing world, often in the poorest and most remote parts. This is where the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health focuses its gaze, with programs to improve the health and economic security of the world’s poorest people through our knowledge of animal diseases that matter in their lives.
Our pilot rabies vaccination programs in Tanzania has been a success. We want to expand our programs (as were described in a recent high-profile publication in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases). We want to join forces with the World Health Organization and others in convening a global alliance to eliminate rabies as a public health problem. We cannot truly eradicate it, but we can control it so rabies deaths in developing countries are as rare as they are in our country. Rabies does not have to kill people or animals.
We are positioned to lead in this effort. Just think of it, your WSU College of Veterinary Medicine leading the charge to rid the world of a major cause of death. To do so we need the help of everyone, including every veterinarian in the country—in the developed world for that matter—and the might of the collected animal health industries. We know what to do. And, as veterinarians, and as those who support the work of veterinarians, we should accept this challenge. As those who convened in Geneva for the December 2015 Global Elimination of Dog-Mediated Human Rabies conference declared, the time is now!