Rabies disease

Last update: 15 January 2020

Rabies is a fatal zoonotic disease (animal disease that can be transmitted to humans) caused by a virus of the genus Lyssavirus. Excreted in the saliva of infected mammals in the final phases of the disease, the virus is generally transmitted to another animal or to humans through biting. Contamination may also occur if the saliva of an infected animal comes into contact with an open wound or a mucous membrane. Without post-exposure treatment prior to the onset of clinical signs, the disease is invariably fatal.


Rabies, which causes over 59,000 human deaths a year worldwide, is found all over the world, except in certain areas such as Antarctica. Several European countries have become rabies-free in non flying mammals thanks to oral vaccination programmes of wildlife.


There are 16 different rabies virus species, seven of which transmission to human has already been notified. Those species are mainly differentiated according to the animal host species. Rabies due to rabies virus species (RABV) is responsible for most human and animal rabies cases.


In industrialised countries, rabies persists mainly in wild animals, whereas in many developing countries it remains an endemic disease, with the domestic dog as principal reservoir and main source of human contamination.


In European countries, rabies in dogs was eliminated several decades ago, but it continued to persist and spread in fox and racoon dog populations. Thanks to oral vaccination campaigns conducted in wildlife, the incidence of rabies in both domestic and wild animals in the EU has drastically reduced. Rabies has been eliminated from the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Estonia, Italy, Latvia and Slovenia.The elimination of rabies in non-flying mamals (RABV) in the European Union will be reachable in the next years. In 2018 and 2019, eight (from 3 EU countries) and five (from 2 EU countries) cases, respectively, were reported in the EU.


To detect timely any suspect animal, the rabies situation in all Europe should be continuously monitored, based on surveillance programmes. The illegal importation of infected cats and dogs from endemic countries remains a major concern, with regular rabies alerts occuring (ProMED). In Europe, bat rabies cases are attributed to five different lyssavirus species. While European bat lyssavirus types 1 and 2 are responsible for most bat rabies cases, Bokeloh bat lyssavirus, West Caucasian bat lyssavirus and Lleida bat lyssavirus have occasionnaly been isolated.



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