What Does Dog Rabies Cost the World Today?

20/04/2015 11:15 BST | Updated 16/06/2015 10:59 BST

A new report published today reveals the staggering cost of dog rabies to the world economy. Rabies costs $8.6bn and kills 160 people every single day. It is the world's most deadly infectious disease. Once symptoms show, it is close to 100% fatal - and yet it is entirely preventable.

So why isn't dog rabies control considered a priority? You may not have heard much about rabies since it is still widely considered a disease of the past - and it is in most of Europe and the United States, but only because it has largely been eliminated with effective control measures. However, 59,000 people die every year from the disease - mostly in impoverished parts of Africa and Asia. Children are disproportionately affected.

A brand new study, just published by Dr Katie Hampson and a host of international rabies experts with the Global Alliance for Rabies Control's Partners for Rabies Prevention, reveals that the continual circulation of rabies in dogs in resource-poor countries is taking its toll on local economies. This comprehensive study takes a new look at what rabies really costs.

It is estimated that rabies costs US$8.6 billion, the majority of which comes from the loss of human lives, the cost of having to be vaccinated after being bitten by a potentially rabid dog and because patients often need to travel long distances to find a clinic where rabies vaccines are available. If they do not get treated before the symptoms show, they will die.

The report also demonstrates that expenditure on dog vaccination represents a meagre 1.5% of the overall cost burden of rabies. Dog vaccination is the single most effective way of controlling rabies. We know that vaccinating 70% of dogs in endemic areas will ensure that rabies will eventually be eliminated. Investment in dog vaccinations will see returns from huge reductions in the cost burden of rabies.

But the impact and costs of dog rabies vary across the world. Most of the costs are for premature deaths in Asia and Africa, as expected, because of the larger number of resource-poor countries in these regions. However, Africa's costs are much lower than Asia's for vaccinating humans who are bitten. This sadly reflects the lack of access to vaccines in African countries, and fewer sustainable rabies control programmes in the region. Many countries in Asia and the Americas have taken major steps to provide vaccines for humans who are exposed to rabies, and this accounts for the higher costs.

The Americas have managed to reduce the number of human deaths from dog rabies down to almost zero by focusing on mass dog vaccination programmes, which is reflected in the larger proportion of their costs for vaccinating dogs. It makes good sense to eliminate rabies at the source of infection by implementing dog vaccination programmes in countries and regions where it still exists. Certainly, this strategy has proven to be successful in many countries in the past including the USA, Western Europe and other regions.

Rabies is the most deadly infectious disease known to mankind and is almost always fatal if an exposed patient does not receive post-exposure vaccination. It is simply a horrific way for someone to die. And yet no-one needs to die from rabies. Rabies vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation are among the most effective vaccines in the world.

Today's report is the most authoritative study to date of the global effects of rabies in both human and economic terms. It spells out in black and white the scale of the problem but its findings on what the solution should be are also quite striking. Rabies is not a disease of the past - it is very much still with us - but it can be made history if we invest in vaccinations. A small investment for a big return.