A man has caught rabies from a bat in Massachusetts, and is now critically ill. It is the first time someone is known to have caught rabies in the state for 75 years.
Rabies is untreatable, but a vaccine administered as soon as possible after being bitten by an infected animal can stop the disease developing. The victim was bitten by a bat, whose small bites often go unnoticed. Deaths from rabies are rare in the US, but bat bites are known to be particularly risky because the nocturnal creatures may bite sleeping people, who are not woken by the small teeth and may be unaware the bite ever occurred.
Worldwide, humans most often catch rabies off dogs. In India, many areas have a problem with stray dogs, and between 10,000 and 20,000 rabies deaths occur each year – a third of the total cases worldwide. In the US pets must be vaccinated against rabies; in India, even if it were compulsory, a quarter of the population live below the breadline and would not be able to afford the vaccine. A major part of the WHO’s strategy to combat rabies in India is to vaccinate 70 percent of the country’s stray dogs.
Rabies is not the most widespread NTD, or the biggest killer, but it disproportionately affects children, who are more likely to be bitten by dogs. Unlike dengue fever, say, we know how to attack it, and have done for decades. The West has largely eliminated the scourge of rabies, but political will and money are needed to do the same in India. The tragic cases of occasional deaths in the US serve as a reminder that this is a deadly, but preventable disease.