Rabies flares up in KZN

At least 97 cases of animal rabies have been reported in KwaZulu-Natal since the beginning of the year, with two people dying from the disease in 2011.

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 One of the most recent cases is in Underberg, with farmer and canoeist Graeme Anderson currently in intensive care with suspected rabies after taking in an infected stray dog. “The dog’s brain, although quite decomposed, was sent to a specialist laboratory in Pretoria for intensive testing. They confirmed it was rabies,” said Underberg veterinary surgeon Dr Tod Collins,
he added that this was the first confirmed case of rabies in Underberg this year.

One of the biggest problems is that people associate rabies with a vicious, snarling dog that is frothing at the mouth. However, there can be many symptoms, whereby the dog appears slightly depressed or sickly. The take-home message is never to pick up stray animals.

“A fairly common form of rabies is ‘dumb’ rabies where people see a dazed dog on the side of the road and think it has been concussed. Quite often people bring these dogs into the surgery and it dies a few days later from rabies. It is the same in the Free State with meerkats,” said Collins.

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Despite the recent flare up, there has been definite progress in controlling the disease. “Overall, the disease is on the decline in KZN,” said Kevin le Roux, rabies project manager at the KZN Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (KZN DAE) veterinary services division. “We have had four years of continuous decline in the disease and last year in July, for the first time in 20 years, we celebrated a year without a human death. We had two human deaths in 2011 but that is a result of foot-and-mouth disease interrupting rabies vaccinations.”

KZN has been plagued by rabies in the past. The peak was in 2007 with 473 animal cases, 90% of which occurred in dogs. It has since declined to 185 in 2011. “We vaccinate about 400 000 dogs annually. In 2008, it was close to 500 000. Last year, we dropped to 275 000 vaccinations because all our staff had to deal with the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak. This year we are expecting excellent vaccination coverage.”

The current areas of concern in the province are in the Winterton and Bergville areas, the Ugu district (Port Shepstone area), and the Richards Bay to Eshowe area. The rabies elimination programme, officially launched in April 2011, aims to eliminate
human and dog rabies from KZN within five years. Work is partly sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but the bulk of money comes from the KZN DAE. “We do have limited resources. We probably need in the region of R20 million to fund an independent team to sustain the campaign when things like FMD come along,” said Le Roux.