Rabies outbreak in the Top End a matter of when, expert warns

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Rabies cell in liquid

An outbreak of the deadly rabies virus could hit Australian’s north at any time, animal health experts are warning.

Melbourne veterinarian Ted Donelan said the Top End’s proximity to Indonesia, where rabies is prevalent, has raised concerns the virus could spread to Australia.

He said northern Australia’s remote communities, where roaming packs of ‘camp dogs’ are a common sight, were vulnerable.

“The dogs and the people in those communities are going to be at the highest risk. I think we’re all fearful that it’s a matter of when, not if, rabies appears,” Dr Donelan said.

“If rabies does hit Australia’s shores, it may be difficult to contain an outbreak.”

Dr Donelan and other local and international experts were in Darwin for the three-day One Health conference on animal health, welfare and management in Indigenous communities.

Rabies belongs to a group of viruses called lyssaviruses, which includes the Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) which can be transmitted from bats to humans and to other animals.

Australia is listed as being free of the rabies virus in land dwelling animals, but three cases of human infection with ABLV have been recorded since the virus was first identified in 1996.

All cases were in Queensland after people were bitten or scratched by bats — and all three died as a result of ABLV infection.

Vaccination is recommended for people planning long-term travel to areas where rabies is known to occur, and vets or wildlife carers in rabies areas.

Immediate treatment and rapid immunisation within a few hours after contact can prevent the onset of the virus, however incorrect treatment can prove fatal.

In Darwin for the One Health conference, Dr Helen Scott-Orr said an Australian rabies outbreak could be triggered by a pet animal brought in by sea from the north.

“Most likely it would happen with a dog on a yacht or possibly spread down through Papua into Australia through the Torres Strait,” Dr Scott-Orr said.

“We can never tell when an accidental introduction might happen.”

One of the aims of the conference was to raise awareness of the threat to Australia and to encourage monitoring in vulnerable areas.

“We’ve got plenty of animals close to the coastline that can pick it up. So we would like to think that those animals are being monitored,” Dr Donelan said.

In September 2014 the World Health Organisation (WHO) said rabies was present in more than 150 countries and territories, with tens of thousands of deaths every year, mostly in Asia and Africa, with 40 per cent “children under 15”.

“Two forms of the disease can follow. People with furious rabies exhibit signs of hyperactivity, excited behaviour, hydrophobia and sometimes aerophobia. After a few days, death occurs by cardio-respiratory arrest,” the WHO said.

“Paralytic rabies accounts for about 30 per cent of the total number of human cases. This form of rabies runs a less dramatic and usually longer course than the furious form. The muscles gradually become paralysed, starting at the site of the bite or scratch.

“A coma slowly develops, and eventually death occurs. The paralytic form of rabies is often misdiagnosed, contributing to the under-reporting of the disease.”

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