Rabies Vaccination Revisited

Each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases a comprehensive report detailing the number of reported rabies cases in the United States and Puerto Rico. The most up-to-date report, which details cases from the year 2003, reveals that more than 7,000 cases were reported in a variety of wild and domestic animal species across 49 states (Hawaii recorded no cases). (Researchers currently are compiling 2004 data, and scientists say it's too early to speculate on reported U.S. rabies cases in 2004 or 2005.)

Eighteen states reported a total of 63 equine rabies cases in 2003; seven states reported more cases than the previous year.

No one knows for sure why there was an increase in some areas and a decrease in others, say the researchers, who report their results annually in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. They add that rabies vaccinations are the best insurance that a horse will not develop the disease.

Lead author on the 2004 study covering 2003 rabies cases was John Krebs, MS, a public health scientist at the CDC. He cautions that many cases of rabies remain unreported, so the number of cases is actually greater than the reported amount. He says that while dogs, cats, and cattle are the domestic animals "most frequently reported rabid," State Health Departments report around "50 plus or minus 10" equine rabies cases per year.

While livestock and other large animals can be infected with rabies, it has never been economically feasible or particularly important from a public health standpoint to require vaccination in this group of animals. However, the CDC recommends that all animals, including horses, that have "regular contact with human beings" be considered for vaccination (all mammals are susceptible to rabies).

Rabies virus variants can periodically shift in their distribution, and the wildlife reservoirs that keep rabies circulating in an area can change from year to year. In some states, rabies infections will probably never go away, but they might dip below detectable limits.

The CDC report is a wake-up call to U.S. horse owners that the rabies virus is alive and on the move. It only takes a single bite from an infected animal to kill a valuable and beloved performance horse and put in jeopardy the health of everyone who comes in contact with that horse. As the CDC monitors the shifting patterns of rabies, owners should discuss with their veterinarians adding this important vaccine to their horses' wellness programs.

More information: www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=6045. Visit www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/RR/RR5403.PDF for the Compendium of Animal and Rabies Control.--Sue Piscopo, DVM, PhD, and Stephanie L. Church

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