Doctors Say Rabies Outbreak in North Won't Let Up Soon

Ministry official warns that disease will ultimately claim a human life

Northern Israel has experienced an outbreak of rabies since last year, and it is showing few signs of abating in the near future.

Sixteen cases of the disease have already been discovered this year, nine of them in dogs and most of the rest in wild animals. Already this year, 671 people in the north have been inoculated against the disease.

"The clock is ticking, and with such high exposure to rabies, ultimately a human being will die from the disease," said the Health Ministry's Northern District director, Dr. Michal Cohen-Dar.

Last year saw 58 incidents of rabies. Before 2009, Israel only experienced between nine and 12 cases of the disease a year.

"The most worrying development is the discovery of the disease among dogs, while in the past most of the cases were found in wild animals," said Dr. Yuval Hadani of the Agriculture Ministry's veterinary service.

Rabies generally reaches Israel from regional countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. "The disease knows no borders," Hadani said.

In Israel, a joint Agriculture Ministry and Nature and Parks Authority project to orally vaccinate foxes and jackals has almost eradicated the virus among wild animals. The inoculation is performed by baiting the animals with meat injected with the vaccine.

The bait, however, is considered too small to be effective among dogs. Canines swallow rather than chew the meat, depriving the vaccine of contact with the animals' saliva.

On Tuesday a dog inoculated against rabies died in Safed, the third dog to die this year despite having received inoculation against the virus.

Representatives of the health and agriculture ministries in the north are now taking measures to remind the public that rabies is caused by a virus, and can be incurable if not caught quick enough. "From the onset of severe symptoms in humans or animals, there is no possibility of saving the patient," they said.

"The rabies virus can also harm nursing babies, as it can be transmitted through saliva," he said. "The disease can be prevented among animals by periodically administering the vaccination, and in humans through immunization after exposure to the virus."

Sixty people in the northern Bedouin village of Bir al-Maksur were recently administered rabies vaccines after a resident adopted a pair of puppies found to be infected with the virus. Local council head Yasser Hujeirat said yesterday, "Public awareness of the disease must be raised. People just aren't aware of the dangers involved."

Some 390,000 dogs are registered in Israel, the majority inoculated against rabies. Over 200,000, however, are not registered, the vast majority of which have not been vaccinated.

Medical professionals told Haaretz that if authorities invested more in public awareness and enforcement of inoculation regulations, the state could save hundreds of thousands of shekels spent on treating individuals exposed to the virus.