Rabies, also known as Hydrophobia (fear of water), is a highly serious viral infection. There are an estimated 55,000 human deaths annually from rabies worldwide, with almost half of them (24,000) occurring in Africa. In Tanzania, rabies kills about 1,500 people every year.
It is a serious ailment that is often ignored or taken lightly by people, especially in rural areas. The problem is compounded by the increase in the number of stray rabid dogs as well as by people’s ignorance about appropriate control measures of rabies.
Once infected, the public often resorts to traditional healers who are equally ignorant about the dangers of the disease. Some people think that religion or magic can protect them and their animals from rabies. This is indeed a dangerous belief, which ignores well-known medical facts and may lead to loss of life caused by the disease.
The disease is relatively common in rural than in urban areas. Most rural folks are not aware of the dangers associated with rabies which is often transmitted by dogs. Dogs are regarded as a source of security in rural areas and are present in almost every homestead. Its occurrence is also attributed to the social attachment to the local dogs kept and regarded as pets by the youth.
How rabies is spread
The virus affects humans, all warm-blooded wild and domestic animals except birds. Dogs are regarded as the main transmitters of the disease but other domestic animals such as cats, cattle, sheep and goats can also transmit the disease among themselves as well as to humans. Transmission happens when an infected animal bites another animal or a human being and the saliva containing the virus enters into the bloodstream through the fresh wound. The virus then spreads from the location of the bite along the nerves to the brain, the spinal cord, and the salivary glands. The infection may take between two weeks and several months to show symptoms. It is only after this period the typical signs of rabies are recognized.
Rabies symptoms in animals
The inflammation of the brain caused by the disease results in unusual behavior: over-excitement, mania, and an attack complex by the infected animals. The disease can last for as few as two days to about a week, after the onset of the first clinical signs.
The first sign is a change of behavior which may take two to three days in dogs.
The next stage is the excitement stage where the animal displays the typical signs of rabies: restlessness, aggressiveness, and sound change. Depending on the species of the infected animal, the sound changes may include howling, roaring, or bleating aimlessly.
In the stage referred to as ‘furious rabies’, dogs often make unprovoked attacks on other animals or objects. This stage lasts for about four days. It is the most dangerous stage of transmission from dogs to humans.
The infected animal then develops paralysis from the rear limbs and refuses to eat or drink while profusely salivating. This paralytic phase is often referred to as ‘dumb rabies’. Death quickly follows.
Prevention and Control of rabies
It is a requirement that all dogs be vaccinated against rabies. It is a fatal disease for infected animals and humans, once the symptoms have started treatment is usually not effective. Therefore, any suspected case of rabies must be reported immediately to the veterinary department. It is not advisable to try to treat an animal infected with rabies due to the dangers posed by handling such an animal.