Israel on the Brink of a Rabies Epidemic, Thousands of Coyotes Killed

The spreading disease is partially due to Israel's diplomatic crisis with Jordan

A jackal roaming near Tirat Zvi in northern Israel.
Avichai Ran

An unusually severe rabies outbreak in northern Israel has the Health Ministry worried, as the disease spreads despite the ministry’s efforts to stem it.

Ordinarily, there are 15 to 30 rabies cases a year. But there have been 17 in the first three weeks of 2018 alone, mainly among jackals. That follows 74 cases last year.

“We’re worried,” said ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov. “Rabies is something you die from, and once you’re infected, there’s no chance of surviving.”

“The risk that we’ll lose control of the outbreak is real and significant,” he added. “And the moment rabies reaches house pets, we’ll lose control.”

For now, the disease is concentrated around Mt. Gilboa and the nearby Jezreel, Beit She’an and Hama’ayanot valleys, he said. “But it wouldn’t take much for it to spread to other places.”

The Agriculture Ministry said the outbreak was started by jackals that crossed into Israel from Jordan. Normally, the ministry scatters the edible vaccine on the Jordanian side of the border as well, but that didn’t happen last year because of a diplomatic crisis between Jordan and Israel that was only recently resolved.

Most Israelis, including those who go hiking up north, aren’t aware of the rabies danger. But in affected areas, a real battle is being waged to contain it.

“I’ve been a district physician for almost 20 years, and there’s always rabies up north, but we haven’t had an outbreak on this scale for many years,” said Dr. Michal Cohen-Dar, chief physician of the ministry’s Northern District.

Last month, she ordered all kindergartners in Yavne’el [in the lower Galilee] be given the post-exposure rabies vaccine, which is administered in four doses, after they visited a local sheepfold. Seventy soldiers have also been vaccinated after coming into contact with stray dogs or sheep. “We can’t take any chances,” Cohen-Dar said.

Her office also sent letters in Hebrew and Arabic to everyone in the area who works with livestock which might have been infected, urging them to be vaccinated. And, in coordination with the Education Ministry, it sent letter to all nursery school and kindergarten principals urging them to be sure that fences have no holes, gates are kept locked and sandboxes are covered and forbidding visits to petting zoos or farms until the outbreak ends.

Recently, a few rabies cases have been reported in the Upper Galilee. The Health Ministry is awaiting lab reports to determine whether this is the same strain as the virus around Mt. Gilboa. If so, that would indicate the disease is spreading northward.

Rabies is an infectious, incurable and fatal virus that affects the nervous system. It’s transmitted in mammals’ saliva, mainly by biting, and once the first symptoms occur, death is inevitable. But it can be prevented in animals through vaccination, and in humans though vaccination immediately after exposure to the virus.

Every year, some 55,000 people worldwide die of rabies, mainly in the Third World. In Israel, hundreds of people a year are given post-exposure vaccinations. The last death from rabies in the country was in 2002.

The current outbreak is mainly in jackals, which rarely come into contact with humans, but can easily transmit the virus to other animals that do come into contact with humans, like farm animals and pets.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, some 3,000 jackals live in the area of the current outbreak. The authority is thinning out this population to curb the spread of the disease, and its inspectors have recently shot some 1,400 jackals. They also scattered edible pellets containing the vaccine, in another effort to stop the disease’s spread.

While the Agriculture Ministry attributes the current outbreak to the infiltration of jackals from Jordan, the parks authority director general Shaul Goldstein said the real problem is poor sanitation. The readily available food from open-air trash pits has enabled the jackal population to grow far beyond its usual size, he explained.