At least 26 people have died of rabies in the Limpopo Province, the majority of them children between the ages of seven and 12. Once rabies symptoms appear, the disease is invariably fatal in both humans and animals. Although the Limpopo Province is considered to be an area where rabies is endemic, especially towards the west, this is the first time in decades that the disease has reached such major proportions.
The outbreak is mostly in the Vhembe area, but cases have been reported from near Tzaneen. While dogs are commonly affected, donkeys and cattle have also been infected with the viral disease recently. According to state vet Dr Dewald Keet, five stray dogs shot in the northern areas of the Kruger National Park (KNP) since October last year have tested positive for rabies.
Dr Edwin Dyason, deputy director general of animal health in Limpopo, commented that the rabies virus appears to be passing from dog to dog, raising the rabies risk for humans who come into contact with the animals. Previously, although some rabies cases in animals were reported each year, they were confined to the occasional interaction between wild and domestic animals, and dog to dog transmission marks a serious escalation of the disease.
Bites from carnivorous animals are a major means of transmitting the disease, and jackals coming into contact with stray dogs in rural areas are a concern. When affected by the disease, wild animals will frequently lose their fear of humans, increasing the risk of spreading rabies.
Dyason appealed to people to make sure that their dogs and cats are vaccinated to prevent an epidemic occurring. This can be done for free at the state vet authorities, or for a fee at private veterinary clinics. Meanwhile, the department of health has embarked on a full scale public awareness programme, spending the weekend of June 10 conducting road shows.
According to Elias Mugari, Limpopo manager for health promotion, they are advising people to treat any bites or scratches from dogs or cats as an emergency, and go to the nearest health facilities for treatment. All wounds must be cleaned as soon as possible with running water and soap, but not bandaged. Once at the health facility, the victim will be assessed and if necessary given an injection that should prevent rabies from developing.
Mugari says that rabies has an incubation period of between ten days and a year. Once symptoms appear, there is no cure for rabies, but treatment can be given during the incubation period. Bua News reports that the last confirmed case of rabies in humans was in 1989 and that in the last five months the number of confirmed rabies cases in animals reached 48, far higher than the usual yearly average of about 30 cases.
The public are asked to report any animals behaving suspiciously to veterinary authorities. Suspicious behaviour includes wild animals showing less fear of humans than expected, domestic animals becoming aggressive, and excessive salivation, especially in dogs and jackals.