09/28/2013 12:28 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2013

Remembering Pasteur on World Rabies Day

Mention the word rabies, and most of us, or at least most of us of a certain age, conjure up visions of those Hollywood staples, Cujo and Old Yeller. But while the film industry may have typecast rabies as a disease confined to once-cute dogs, the sad fact is that this terrifying, silent killer is anything but limited to dogs, and the devastation it causes is anything but confined to the big screen.

Today, World Rabies Day, seems a good time to consider the facts about this disease. It is the world's deadliest disease, killing 99.9 percent of everyone who contracts it. It is also very much present in the world today, not only here in the United States but in every continent bar Antarctica. It kills tens of thousands of people each year, the majority of whom are children, and it is expanding geographically, into areas previously considered out of harm's way.

None of which makes uplifting reading, given that we live in an age of unsurpassed scientific accomplishment. But while science has and always will be at the heart of the fight back against rabies -- it was Louis Pasteur, remember, who discovered the first vaccine for the disease -- it's comforting to know that there is a lot that we can do to help keep this killer in check.

The fact that so many rabies victims are children is because children tend to be less guarded when it comes to coming into contact with strange dogs. Much of the work of my organization, the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC), then, goes on not in the laboratory or clinic but in the classroom and community center, educating children, teachers and other folk of the basic rules to follow when strange animals enter a village. It's been remarkably effective and inexpensive: in a project we recently completed in the Philippines, it helped us to control rabies across a whole province for as little as a few cents per person.

Getting dogs and cats vaccinated against rabies may seem like a no-brainer here in the rich world, but it's more complicated in other regions. Mass dog vaccination programs are still too expensive and often vaccine stocks for people exposed to the disease are too far away to be able to access them. This hits poor, rural populations hard and makes health authorities' job of identifying action areas more difficult.

This is why GARC is engaged in a number of countries putting together the most comprehensive study yet of where the global rabies burden is felt most and helping get vital stocks of vaccines for administering post-exposure to the places they're needed most.

It's also why we do research into new strategies of rabies prevention for those who have been bitten. All too often, people die from rabies because they don't have enough money, or can't travel, to complete a course of vaccines. We are supportive of developing faster-acting shots that require fewer injections and hence reduce this likelihood.

Our actions are working. In the areas where we are active we are able to check its advance. Our alliances of educationalists, vets, doctors and the community at large are proof that together, we can defeat rabies. We are even seeing positive signs that for the first time in history we are generating experimental insights towards treatment for the disease.

It's humbling stuff, and while we are proud of our achievements to date we also know there is so much work to be done. As we improve our methods of calculating the exact burden of the disease, we are learning more about the scale of its impact. We still need to make headway persuading politicians that this is a winnable fight, that rabies can be eliminated not just controlled.

You can help too. Lack of awareness still causes deaths each year here in the United States. It need not. By keeping our pets vaccinated, educating our children to stay away from wild animals that may be infected and to seek professional medical advice if they are bitten, we can help make the United States rabies-free. World Rabies Day itself marks the death of Louis Pasteur, that brilliant scientist who first discovered the vaccine for rabies. By continuing the fight, we can help his legacy live on.