How close are we to eliminating rabies?
In 2013, there were over 55,000 human deaths from rabies with the majority occurring in Asia and Africa. America has a much lower rate thanks to successful rabies vaccine campaigns for pet. In 2013, the number of human deaths in America was three with 500 pet deaths due to rabies.
Global health organizations hope to reduce the total number of deaths from rabies to zero by 2016. The focus is on countries within the Americas particularly, Haiti, Bolivia, Cuba and Dominican Republic. Outside of the Americas, India has the highest number of human deaths due to rabies with over 20,000 human deaths per year. The majority of cases are attributed to stray dogs infected with rabies biting people and transmitting the virus.
Maintaining vaccine programs that target pet dogs and feral dog populations can successfully eliminate rabies. Rigorously vaccinating the pet population and implementing a dog-licensing program have accomplished the successful vaccination of the United States pet population. In addition, a successful rabies awareness campaign alerted the public of the dangers associated with rabies and enabled pet owners with ways to prevent rabies including vaccinating. These campaigns have been so successful that in 2007, the canine specific rabies virus was declared eliminated from the United States.
It should be stressed that just because the United States has eliminated one of the eight different rabies viruses does not entitle a more relaxed vaccination strategy. Wildlife such as raccoons and skunks frequently carry different types of rabies virus and account for >80% of the 6,154 reported rabid animals in 2010. If a wild animal bites a domestic pet, they can easily infect that pet which can infect other pets as well as humans.
The World Health Organization and Pan America Health Organization agree that successful elimination of deaths due to rabies depends on public awareness. The world has the diagnostic ability and inexpensive vaccines and knowledge to prevent, control and eliminate human infections with rabies. Many countries are rabies-free such as Austria, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and Switzerland. Rabies has never been introduced to Australia or New Zealand. Thus, it is possible to eliminate rabies from the Americas. Hopefully in the near future rabies will be added to the list of eliminated diseases alongside small pox and rinderpest.