At least 1.5 billion people in Southeast Asia are in danger of having rabies, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Close to 25,000 people die from rabies in Southeast Asia every year, and around 4 million people are given rabies vaccines annually.  

To combat this, the WHO has announced their goal of eliminating rabies in Southeast Asia by the year 2020. The WHO is currently collaborating with other organizations like the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health to implement rabies elimination programs in countries with high incidence of the infection.   

Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO Southeast Asia, believes that national strategies for eliminating rabies should focus on making cost effective post-exposure vaccines accessible. There are still countries in Southeast Asia that experience rabies deaths because there is a shortage of affordable vaccines in clinics and hospitals. 

"Ensuring post-exposure rabies vaccination to all in an equitable manner should be a key element of rabies elimination efforts," Dr. Khetrapal Singh said.

Communities should also be taught how to safeguard their families and pets from being infected by the virus. Dr. Khetrapal Singh also emphasized the importance of knowing first aid when it comes to dog bites and the urgency of seeking medical help, especially if the bite came from an animal suspected to have rabies.

"Communities have an important role to play in rabies elimination," Dr. Khetrapal Singh added. He advised families to vaccinate pet cats and dogs against the virus, wash bite wounds with soap and water thoroughly and immediately seek a post-exposure rabies vaccine to prevent further disease progress.

Rabies is caused by a virus which will eventually travel to the brain and cause swelling, or acute encephalitis. It can be transmitted between different species, usually through an infected bite wound, though coming in contact with infected animal saliva can also spread the virus. According to the WHO, 99 percent of human rabies infections are caused by dog bites. Symptoms for rabies infection include headache, lack of appetite, vomiting, disorientation, restlessness, foaming at the mouth and hydrophobia or fear of water.

The importance of vaccinating animals against the disease and having an anti-rabies shot after getting bitten cannot be overemphasized. There is still no known cure for rabies, and once symptoms for rabies start showing, which will depend on the location of the bite and how far it is from the brain, the patient will die in a matter of days.

"As soon as you see the first symptoms of rabies, even the very first - a tingling in the hands or a child becomes slightly disoriented - death is inevitable," says Dr. Neil Kennedy, dean of medicine at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Malawi.

Photo: Paul Walker | Flickr

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