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Experts target dogs to eradicate rabies virus

| Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, 7:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Rabies experts on Thursday introduced a blueprint for eliminating the pernicious disease, which almost always is caused by bites from rabid dogs and kills tens of thousands of people a year worldwide, through a program of dog vaccinations in targeted regions.

The viral disease is rare in developed countries thanks to routine vaccination of pet dogs, but still kills about 69,000 people globally every year, mostly in poor and rural parts of Africa and Asia. About a third of rabies-related deaths are in India.

Vaccines for people and dogs have long existed, but rabies has persisted in the absence of a concerted effort to wipe it out. The international team of experts, writing in the journal Science, proposed what they called a cost-effective and achievable strategy for ending canine-spread rabies.

Efforts in Latin America and pilot projects in Africa and Southeast Asia have shown that widespread dog vaccination programs can prevent human rabies in low-income countries as well as wealthy ones, they said. Vaccinating 70 percent of dogs in a given region is the threshold for halting rabies, they noted.

“There is now convincing evidence that vaccination of dogs would eliminate greater than 98 percent of the rabies health burden globally,” said Guy Palmer, director of Washington State University's Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.

“Even today, rabies is the most consistently fatal infectious disease of humans,” added Palmer, noting that virtually every person who develops symptoms dies.

Felix Lankester, director of the Serengeti Health Initiative that conducts dog vaccination campaigns in rural villages around Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, said a coordinated global effort would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps several billions.

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