Rabies-2_3284049bWe have a distorted perception of the importance of deaths of fellow human beings. The newsworthiness of death depends on three factors: how many deaths in the incident, how close to home did it happen, and what is the nationality of the people dying?

So when over 5,000 people die in an earthquake in Nepal, the sheer high number is enough to make this global headlines. When 800 people die in the sinking of a ship of migrants, the fact that it happened off the coast of Europe makes this seem somehow more shocking.

What if 5,000 people died from something that could be prevented? That’s how many people die of rabies around the world every month, all year round, on an ongoing basis. Rabies-cut_3284045b

If the monthly total happened on a single day, it would be major news, but spread over a month, it seems less serious. If the deaths happened in Europe or USA, it would be in the newspapers, but most of the deaths happen in Africa and Asia. And if it happened to Westerners traveling in these far-off countries, it would be heralded as a major travel crisis. Since the people dying are mostly poor children who don’t have a powerful voice, we just don’t hear about them.

Domestic dogs cause over 99 per cent of the human deaths by rabies. Efforts to remove dogs by culling them have never worked: people hide animals that they like when the dog catchers are in the area. The proven answer is to introduce national rabies vaccination campaigns. Most of Europe and America have eradicated rabies from the dog (and human) population via the systematic vaccination of pets. It’s cheap to do this (as little as 20 cents per dog if done on a large scale). We know that if 70 per cent of a local dog population is vaccinated, the number of canine rabies cases rapidly decreases, and when rabies in dogs is eliminated, the threat to humans is removed. In 1983, the countries of South America started a policy of mass dog vaccination: dog rabies cases in the region fell from a peak of 25,000 in 1977 to just 196 in 2011, and human cases fell by 96 per cent to only 15 across the whole continent.

A recent survey assessed the economic cost of rabies at €8 billion per year, yet only 1.5 per cent of this sum is spent on dog vaccinations. This should be a no-brainer: countries that invest higher sums of money into rabies vaccination of dogs have a much lower incidence of rabies in humans. And countries with higher numbers of humans dying of rabies have a low incidence of vaccination of dogs against rabies.

Why are governments not joining up these dots? There’s a simple practical reason: the funding for dog rabies vaccine campaigns comes out of poorly resourced animal health budgets. It’s easy for politicians to commit to spending money on human health but they are far less willing to finance dog vaccinations. This would be the long term answer, but it isn’t a short-term vote winner, so it doesn’t happen.

Rabies should be a disease of the past, like smallpox. We know how to get rid of it, and we have the resources, but it just isn’t happening. Why not?