Edinburgh vet's bid to cut deaths from rabies in Africa

November 16, 2005

The fatal disease of rabies, which kills thousands of people in Africa and Asia each year, could be dealt a body blow if a new dog vaccination programme in Tanzania proves successful. Dr Sarah Cleaveland, an animal disease expert at the University of Edinburgh, has implemented a project to vaccinate 40,000 domestic dogs annually in the Serengeti, in a move to cut rates of the disease.

Dogs are essential for protecting livestock and property in Tanzanian villages, but when rabid, they bite and infect thousands of people annually. Recent estimates put the death toll from rabies as 55,000 in Africa and Asia, with 1500 people in Tanzania, mostly children, dying from the disease.

Dr Cleaveland, a senior lecturer at the centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine at the University's Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies says: "Rabies is a disease of poverty, because when villagers are bitten, they are unable to get to hospital in time to receive the post-exposure vaccination needed to prevent rabies developing, or they simply can't afford the treatment. By vaccinating the dogs, we can work towards eliminating the disease."

As part of the process, Dr Cleaveland and her team will investigate if the dogs are the only source of the disease. "We believe that dogs act as a 'reservoir' for the disease, and although wildlife can be bitten and die from rabies, in the Serengeti, they appear not to be able to maintain cycles of infection independently of dogs."

The initial phase of the project was set up with funding from the Wellcome Trust and is now supported by the NIH/NSF Ecology of Infectious Disease program, with vaccines supplied by the firm Intervet.

The work on rabies is part of a wider research programme that aims to understand the dynamics of diseases which can be transmitted between animals and humans. "About 75 per cent of emerging human diseases, including Avian 'flu, West Nile Virus and Lyme disease originate in animals and many of these are linked with wildlife. The more we understand about the 'viral chatter' between species and the factors influencing transmission, the better equipped we will be to deal with these infections," said Dr Cleaveland.

University of Edinburgh

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