While misuse continues, Yan said rabies still goes unchecked in high-risk regions – mostly rural areas where people are ignorant of the disease and its prevention. “Among all consumers of vaccines in China, only 12 percent were actually exposed to the virus. In other words, 88 percent of people who should have taken vaccines did not do so, and those who rushed to vaccinate themselves out of fear are doing so unnecessarily,” Yan contended.
Data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that China’s number of human rabies cases bottomed out at the end of the 20th century following an increase in the 1980s. But the figure rose again in the early 21st century. In 2007, China reported 3,300 cases, about 20 times that of 1996. Although the figure has dropped annually, it has not yet returned to the lowest point in the 20th century.
An increase in the number of dogs is believed to be a major cause. China’s fast economic growth has enabled many families to keep dogs as pets, but they may lack awareness about the need to vaccinate against rabies.
“Vaccinate dogs? Are you kidding me? We’re doing as much as we can just to vaccinate humans,” Yang Xiuli, a woman in a Shanxi Province village, told NewsChina. Yang said few rural people believe it necessary to vaccinate dogs. There isn’t even a place to get animals vaccinated in her village. She said most villagers feel that humans should be prioritized over dogs – and vaccinations are no exception.
Yang’s words were echoed by Gao Bin, an elderly man in a suburban village of Beijing where families are rich enough to afford cars but few vaccinate their dogs. “Aren’t vaccinations for city pets only? I’ve never heard of a country dog getting vaccinated,” he told NewsChina.
While urban areas see higher vaccination rates, as more dogs are abandoned and roam the streets, the threat of rabies increases. Media reported that China is home to around 200 million dogs. At least 40 million are strays. However, according to Yan, only 40 percent of all dogs in China are vaccinated, and that percentage is likely to be even lower among strays. In a 2017 report, Chengdu Economic Daily revealed that only 10 percent of all strays in Chengdu were vaccinated.
Even dog-related NGOs and animal protection groups are failing on this issue. Wu Li, a young woman who volunteers with a dog protection NGO in Chongqing, told NewsChina that many small animal protection organizations do not vaccinate stray dogs. “Cost might be a factor… but I think the main reason is the fact that they’re not aware that strays should be examined and vaccinated against rabies as soon as they are rescued from the streets,” she said.
According to Wu, it generally costs 10 yuan (US$1.3) to vaccinate a dog with domestically made animal vaccines – much cheaper than vaccinating a human. However, few people, especially those in rural areas, see it as the dog owner’s responsibility to vaccinate their pets.
Perhaps that’s why fear of rabies remains rampant: Despite experts explaining vaccinated dogs cannot transmit rabies, public fears persist in part because no one ever knows for sure whether a dog has been vaccinated or is healthy.
“The WHO’s 10-day observation period is of great help in easing people’s fear of rabies. But it should be noted that many people are bitten by strays. In such cases, the observation period becomes difficult because they have no way to locate the stray that bit them nor the expertise to observe them,” Yin Wenwu, a chief physician at the CDC, said during a video interview with news portal sohu.com.