Professors from National Taiwan University’s School of Veterinary Medicine recently found the rabies virus in the bodies of three Formosan ferret-badgers that were sent there for testing, causing Taiwan to fall off the list of rabies-free countries after 54 years.
The way the Council of Agriculture has handled communicable diseases between animals and humans, such as the avian flu, over the past decade is causing concern that it will be impossible for Taiwan to get back on the list of rabies-free countries, while the risk of Taiwanese contracting rabies increases by the day.
China is one of the worst places for rabies in the world, with between 2,000 and 3,000 people dying from the disease each year. Official information shows that more than 90 percent of those infected fell sick after being bitten by dogs that carried the virus, followed by infected ferret-badgers, with a small minority contracting it from infected domestic cats and pigs.
It was only in 1994 that the Chinese government verified that wild ferret-badgers in several provinces in southeastern China carried the rabies virus, and it was not until 1997 that cases of people becoming ill with the virus after being bitten by ferret-badgers began to appear. After that, there have been frequent reports of people in this region dying after being bitten by ferret-badgers.
Last year, in Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang Province, a farmer became infected after she was bitten by a ferret-badger and died four days later.
An important question for people in Taiwan is whether the wildlife rescue team in Nantou, where the infected ferret-badgers were found, were bitten by the animals that they sent to the university for testing. Because there is a high risk of this having happened, they should be vaccinated as soon as possible.
Information shows that ferret-badgers in the regions in China where rabies has been present for a long time were carrying another form of rabies whose genetic sequence is 89 percent similar to the rabies virus among dogs. This virus may have originated from dogs, and while there are some genetic differences between the two varieties, it would still be fatal to dogs and humans. The genetic sequence of the rabies virus found in Formosan ferret-badgers and the variety found in dogs is between 88 and 92 percent similar. While they are not the same virus, we cannot afford to overlook the dangers of them.
The council has increased vaccination of domestic dogs in Gukeng (古坑) in Yunlin, and Yuchi (魚池) and Lugu (鹿谷) in Nantou, the areas where the infected ferret-badgers were found, but they have done nothing at all about the wild animals in these areas. Just how is this going to be of any use?
In 2007, the US announced it was free of rabies among canines and the US Department of Agriculture immediately started to periodically spray a recombinant rabies vaccine from helicopters on affected areas in the wild as a way of administering oral vaccines among wild animals, stating that this could stop the transmission of rabies among wild animals.
There are many wild animals in Taiwan that could possibly be infected with the rabies virus, including primates such as monkeys, carnivores such as leopard cats and chiroptera such as bats. All of these animals could become infected and pass the virus on. The council should take a leaf out of the US’ book and wipe out the virus among wild animals to stop it from spreading.
Now that Taiwan has the rabies virus in wild animals, if the council does not effectively carry out monitoring, quarantine and prevention measures and it allows stray dogs to run around in open fields, cross contamination between wild animals, such as the ferret-badger, and dogs will occur and the risk of rabies infection among humans will become very real.
Liou Pei-pai is a former director of the Taiwan Animal Health Research Institute.
Translated by Drew Cameron