A SOUTH African initiative to combat rabies has attracted global attention, with the programme dramatically reducing the number of infected dogs in KwaZulu-Natal to a 26-year low.
The province now has more people dying as a result of wounds inflicted by dog attacks than of rabies bites.
This was revealed by rabies project manager Kevin le Roux, who spoke in Johannesburg at a World Rabies Day event on Friday.
The government-supported project, which began as a Bill and Melinda Gates pilot programme, has been so successful in reducing rabies in dogs that there is talk of rolling out the project to Lesotho and other African countries.
In 2007, there were 45 cases of rabid dogs reported a month on average. "Now we are at about three," Le Roux, of the KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture Department, said.
He said the drop in the number of human rabies cases was directly linked to the dog vaccination programme.
He had seen children with rabies in the hours before their deaths suffering spasms, intense fear, exhibiting facial distortions, or being afraid of their own saliva.
This had spurred him on to run the project. "You see the horrific way they die, yet you know it's completely preventable.
"Rabies is a human disease with an animal source. We would not care if humans did not die," he said.
It was cheaper to vaccinate dogs than to treat people with rabies.
A vaccine for dogs cost between R1 and R3, while people with rabies needed at least four vaccinations, at a cost of R450 each, in addition toother pricey treatments, he said.
The death of canoeist Graham Anderson from rabies last year had led former KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize to increase funding for the project.
Those working on the project last year oversaw the vaccination of 638000 of the province's 1.1 million dogs.
Le Roux said analysis of the rabies virus that had killed Anderson, 29, showed that the stray dog came from Lesotho.
This meant the project also had to work with areas that bordered the province.
"We have 20 vehicles which travel to villages making sure people are vaccinated," he said.
Dogs need to be vaccinated against rabies every three years.
"But people forget to do it," Malcolm de Bude, Gauteng chief veterinarian at the Department of Agricultural and Rural Development, said.
Dr Juno Thomas, of the National Institute of Communicable Disease, warned that many cases of people dying of rabies went undetected.
"About 30% of humans do not present the typical rabies symptoms of headaches, fever and fear of water ... doctors may not realise the person has rabies.
"The institute has confirmed seven human cases this year, but we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg."