Published on 26/05/2014
Last update: 20 November 2014
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.
Rabies, which causes over 70,000 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. Without treatment prior to the onset of clinical signs, the disease is invariably fatal.
There are 14 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 Western European Countries, rabies in dogs was eliminated several decades ago, but it continues to persist in fox and racoon dog populations. Thanks to oral vaccination campaigns conducted in wildlife, vulpine rabies has been eliminated from the Netherlands and Finland (1991), Switzerland (1998), France (2000), Belgium and Luxembourg (2001) Czech Republic (2004), Germany (2008), Estonia and Italy (2013).
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, and justifiably so, since 23 rabies alerts have occurred in the European Union (11 in France, 5 in Germany, 2 in Belgium, 1 in Finland, 1 in the Netherlands, 1 in Spain 1 in Switzerland and 1 in the United Kingdom) from 2001 to 2013.
Certain rabies virus species affect European bats (European Bat Lyssavirus types 1 and 2). The risk of virus transmission from infected bats to humans is considered negligible in the general population, considering the low probability of human exposure to bats.