Doctors urge new tactic in war on rabies

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am


Mainland authorities should vaccinate dogs instead of squandering billions of yuan on shots for humans, a top mainland rabies expert said, in comments timed to mark World Rabies Day yesterday.

The annual cost of preventing the deadly disease has climbed to 10 billion yuan (HK$12.19 billion), the most expensive anti-rabies programme in the world. About 15 million sets of rabies vaccine - roughly 80 per cent of the global total - are injected into mainlanders each year.

But the mainland has the world's second-poorest record, with at least 2,000 people killed by rabies every year, trailing only the 20,000 deaths recorded annually in India.

Yan Jiaxin, a senior researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, the mainland's top rabies research institute, which produced the country's first batch of rabies vaccines in the 1980s, said the poor return on investment was a result of the central authorities' 'incorrect thinking' in combating rabies.

'The Ministry of Agriculture thinks that preventing rabies is the business of the Ministry of Health,' he said. 'Since the mid-1990s we doctors have been advocating that the core thing should be to vaccinate dogs, but our opinions have fallen on deaf ears.'

He said some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture had once told him that, for them, rabies control was not a priority.

Rabies vaccines for use on animals are all imported but the Ministry of Agriculture approved a production licence for a domestic manufacturer early this year, Yan said.

He said veterinary vaccines were much cheaper to make than ones for humans and less vaccine was required for dogs, making a switch in emphasis economically attractive.

Two years ago, the ministries of health, agriculture and public security, along with the State Food and Drug Administration, issued a statement on the mainland's rabies prevention and control situation. It said the numbers of dogs and cats had shot up in recent years and more people were being bitten.

The mainland's rabies death toll stayed around 1,900 a year in the 1950s but went as high as 5,500 in the 1980s. It then declined dramatically in the 1990s, to less than 1,000 a year, before jumping to at least 2,000 a year this decade, with 3,300 deaths in 2007. The top five provinces and regions for rabies deaths were Guangxi, Guizhou, Guangdong, Hunan and Sichuan .

Rabies is caused by a virus transmitted to humans via the saliva of an infected animal. Most deaths occur if the virus is not treated immediately after exposure.

If allowed to incubate, sometimes for several months, the virus reaches the central nervous system and is then nearly always fatal.

Huang Qin, an infectious disease specialist at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, said she received three to four rabies patients a year - all migrant workers. They usually died after visiting the hospital. 'When bitten by dogs, they don't take it seriously or think they have been lucky to escape catching the virus,' she said.

Some people could not afford the rabies vaccine, Huang said.

World Health Organisation experts says that rabies can be eliminated if enough animals are vaccinated. The WHO has a global goal of eradicating the disease by 2020.

Yan said he and other mainland doctors always felt embarrassed at international meetings because many other Asian countries, including India, Vietnam and the Philippines, had promised to eliminate rabies, but that China's leaders had yet to do so.


The number of people who die each year from rabies, mostly in Africa and Asia, according to the World Rabies Day website. About half are children