By Ruth Steinberger
Photos by Fabiola Alvarez
Rabies kills tens of thousands of people in impoverished nations each year. While many people may be surprised by the fact that people die of rabies today, most are shocked to learn that dogs are the vectors in over 95 percent of rabies cases in humans.
According to the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC), an estimated 375 million homeless dogs exist worldwide—three quarters of all dogs born. Over 80 percent of unwanted dogs are born in nations in which animals are not protected under the law and where rabies is a genuine human health threat. Official methods for killing dogs in rabies-plagued nations include clubbing, electrocution, poisoning, drowning and intentional starvation.
Indeed, on a worldwide scale, more dogs are killed by electrocution, clubbing and poisoning than by humane injection; fear of rabies is the number one reason for these aggressive killing programs. The good news, however, is that a vaccine which could, at once, prevent rabies and pregnancy in dogs may be on the horizon, and GARC is embarking on a campaign to raise the funds to begin the testing of this vaccine in dogs. To begin, at least $150,000 must be raised to move forward.
Researchers, Dr. Xianfu Wu and Dr. Charles Rupprecht, of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC), have developed a rabies vaccine with an embedded immunocontraceptive target, which has prevented litters in 80 percent of vaccinated female mice. The vaccine would require a commercial partner and must be approved by regulatory authorities. If this combined rabies/ contraceptive vaccine is determined to be effective in preventing dogs from becoming pregnant, it could revolutionize animal welfare while also preventing and eliminating rabies in developing nations, effectively ending the worst horrors facing unwanted dogs in numbers that are impossible by any other means. The average life of a street dog is just two years. Preventing unwanted litters by sterilizing owned females obviously halts the main source of street dogs.
By piggybacking on rabies vaccination programs, this vaccine could provide population control in places where high-volume surgical sterilization for dogs and cats is still decades away, or even in places where dogs and cats are viewed as vermin and providing medical care to them may not be considered valuable.
“Although most developing nations lack animal welfare facilities, such as shelters, much less having spay/neuter programs, many do have rabies control programs,” says Esther Mechler, originator of Spay USA and founder of Marian’s Dream, an animal welfare foundation. Mechler points out that the rabies component could dramatically increase the number of public agencies willing and able to administer the product, essentially taking some of the burden off of the animal welfare community while increasing efficiency in animal welfare efforts.
In addition to being unconscionably cruel, collecting and killing stray dogs is generally ineffective at stopping the disease because whether or not owned dogs are vaccinated, intact females have litters which replenish the numbers of potential rabies vectors each year. The outcome is not simply theoretical; rabies produces a violent death as the central nervous system is destroyed by the virus, and, tragically, 40 percent of those who die of rabies are children. Mechler says, “It’s exciting that this [CDC] team is working on solving these two serious problems together and will be helping the people and the animals both with this one product.”
Prevention is the only alternative to collecting and killing, and where there are free-roaming animals, the efforts must focus on females. Male animals are often cited as having a theoretical number of potential offspring which is quite high. However, sterilizing male animals has no effect on whether or not the females go into estrus and attract males from afar.
Currently, the research is on hold due to the lack of funding; therefore, GARC’s fundraising efforts are starting immediately. “Finding a feasible answer to humanely reduce the dog population is probably the single most important missing tool in the battle to reduce the burden of rabies across the globe,” Professor Deborah Briggs, executive director of Global Alliance for Rabies Control, says.
“Supporting research on the development of an immunocontraceptive could save millions of dogs from being slaughtered in the name of rabies control and revolutionize rabies control strategies.”