Ready or Not, Rabies on the Rise

While instances of rabies in wild animals in Israel has dropped, an increasing number of cases have been found among household pets, particularly dogs.

About a week ago, a jackal caught prowling in an olive grove near Kibbutz Neve Ur in the Beit She'an Valley was put to death. A post-mortem examination revealed the animal had been rabid - Israel's first documented case of rabies in 2011.

The last few years have seen a rise in incidents of rabid animals. In 2006, nine cases of rabies were reported in Israel. The next year, 2007, saw 15 cases; in 2008, 12 cases of the disease were found. In 2009, the figure jumped to 58 (with 32 cases discovered in dogs ). And last year, a total of 53 cases of rabies were registered (23 in dogs ).

Michal Fattal

The rabies virus affects all mammals and is transmitted in saliva, mostly through bites. It is very dangerous to humans, as from the moment it erupts it leads to certain death. However, between the time of infection and the eruption of the disease, there is a period of varying length during which one can receive an inoculation.

The fact that an increasing number of cases have been found among pets and farm animals, while the registered instances among wild animals appears to be on the decline, is cause for concern. For many years, rabies was identified with wild animals, but a project to immunize foxes and jackals - initiated by the veterinary services at the Agriculture Ministry and the Nature and Parks Authority - nearly eliminated the disease among those populations in Israel. As part of the effort, meat containing a vaccine against rabies was scattered as bait.

A worrying trend

"This is worrying - the trend has reversed. Instead of being a disease that appears mainly in nature, rabies has become urban," says veterinarian Dr. Yifat Shemesh of Kibbutz Mizra.

"The problem is worse today, because in the current epidemic the disease is concentrated among pets - in contrast to the past, when it affected wild animals," says Dr. Yoni Litwin, the chairman of the Association of Pet Veterinarians. "To curb the disease it is necessary that we inoculate pets, but we are very far from fulfilling this goal. Many people simply don't inoculate their animals."

Some believe pet owners avoid having their pets inoculated against rabies because they don't want to pay the cost - NIS 140 - which includes the cost of the vaccine and a license fee payment.

"The Association of Pet Veterinarians has already proposed conducting a national inoculation campaign at low cost or for free, separating the inoculation from the license fee. The license fee could be charged along with municipal property tax, not as a condition for administering the inoculation," says Litwin.

The Health Ministry responds

According to data registered at the Health Ministry, 3,888 people received inoculations in 2009 after coming in contact with an animal suspected of carrying rabies. In previous years, between 2,400 and 3,000 people were inoculated against the disease annually. For humans, the cost of each inoculation is NIS 650.

The Health Ministry issued the following response: "The ministry is doing everything it can to deal with the disease and to reduce its extent. The ministry holds many relevant seminars all around the country and especially in areas where large numbers of rabies cases have been found. During the past year, we have witnessed a significant increase in the appearance of the disease among stray dogs and pet dogs that have been infected by wild animals. By law, stray dogs are captured by catchers representing the veterinary departments of the local authorities.

"At the same time, the Health Ministry has initiated activity to reduce the fertility of stray animals, including support and grants for spaying and castrating dogs, spaying and castrating street cats, establishing local clinics, upgrading municipal dog pounds and rehabilitating horses and donkeys.

"The cost of inoculation in Israel is particularly low: Less than NIS 30 for a dog and half of that if the dog is already neutered."