By Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer
Published: 09/25/2014 02:20 PM EDT on LiveScience
It is possible to eliminate cases of the deadly rabies virus in people worldwide through mass vaccinations of dogs, some researchers argue.
Rabies cases are extremely rare in developed countries — in the United States, there was just one rabies case in 2013, and the patient acquired the disease while in Guatemala, according to researchers from Washington State University. Effective rabies vaccines have been available for years, but the virus still kills more than 69,000 people yearly worldwide, most of them children in Africa and Asia.
The rabies vaccine can be given to people after a possible exposure to the virus, and is extremely effective in preventing the disease from taking hold. But once a person begins to show symptoms of rabies — which can include delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations and partial paralysis — the disease is almost always fatal.
"The irony is that rabies is 100 percent preventable. People shouldn't be dying at all," said Dr. Guy Palmer, a veterinary infectious disease expert at Washington State University's Allen School for Global Animal Health. [5 Viruses That Are Scarier Than Ebola]
In an article published today (Sept. 25) in the journal Science, Palmer and his colleagues argue that eliminating rabies cases is possible if doctors, veterinarians and public health professionals work together to establish mass vaccination programs for dogs.
Although rabies can infect many different animals, studies show that domestic dogs, rather than wildlife, are the main source of rabies infections in people, the researchers said.
In his article, Palmer pointed to a 2009 study that found that vaccinating 70 percent of dogs in villages in the East African country of Tanzania was enough to break the chain of rabies transmission from dogs to people, and eventually eliminate the disease in those areas.
Since a mass dog vaccination program began in Tanzania in 2003, the number of deaths from rabies droped from 50 a year to almost zero, the researchers said.
Studies also show that vaccinating 70 percent of dogs in an area is cost-effective, and less expensive over the long term than providing vaccinations to bite victims, the researchers said.
In many countries, progress toward eliminating rabies is "hampered by lack of political commitment and financing," the researchers wrote. Support from international human and animal health organizations could play an important role in scaling up pilot dog vaccination programs to the national level, they said.
"Caine rabies elimination meets all the criteria for a global health priority: It is epidemiologically and logistically feasible, cost effective, and socially equitable," they wrote.
The vision of Louis Pasteur, who invented the first rabies vaccination in 1885 and wanted to rid the world of the disease, "is within our reach," the researchers said.