Northern Territory on Alert for Rabies Outbreak

April 2, 2020 Updated: April 30, 2020

The Australian government has warned the Northern Territory and the Torres Strait communities that they are at risk of a rabies outbreak. Currently, Australia and Antarctica are the only continents free of the land-based rabies virus.

A study completed by Charles Darwin University has indicated that the virus has spread rapidly throughout the Indonesia Archipelago, only 600 km (about 373 miles) north of Darwin. This has left the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment concerned that an outbreak could occur at any time in the Torres Strait Islands or the Northern Territory.

According to Maryann Dalton, CEO of the Australian based Vets Beyond Borders, rabies is a very serious disease. “Rabies is nearly always fatal but it’s 100 percent preventable by vaccination,” said Dalton. Dog bites cause nearly all human cases of rabies.

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Puppies about to be vaccinated for rabies in Bali, Indonesia. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

The World Health Organisation states that annually, rabies kills 59,000 people in over 150 countries. With children under the age of 15 making up 40 percent of those afflicted. Once infected, signs of the disease can develop after anywhere between 10 days or several months of exposure and death usually occurs within 10 days.

How Rabies Could Come to Australia

The Department of Agriculture believes that the most likely point of origin for rabies into Australia will be boats carrying rabies-infected dogs from Indonesia or the islands in Papua that land on our northern coastline. Those dogs could then infect dingoes and community cats and dogs.

In January and February 2019, Indonesia suffered an outbreak of rabies that left 629 people infected and 12 dead. The Indonesian Health Ministry’s director for vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, said the outbreak was caused by low vaccination rates among stray and domestic dogs.

One of the worst-hit regions by the virus was Dompu, where authorities had to distribute 2800 rabies vaccines and put down 1028 dogs—a large number of which were strays. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture, rabies had been eliminated in 9 of the country’s 34 provinces, but that’s now been reduced to just 4 provinces.

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A tourist plays with a dog at Seminyak Beach, Bali, Indonesia. (Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)

The northern coastal regions of Australia are sparsely populated, but there are numerous packs of dingos, wild dogs, and community dogs in these areas that roam freely. If rabies were to reach these areas, these animals would pose an extensive threat to the health and safety of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

As Australia has never had rabies, vaccination rates for the virus are non-existent. To keep communities safe, the Department of Agriculture is encouraging everyone in the Northern Territory to be aware of animals acting strangely.

A culturally appropriate animated awareness-raising video campaign for the region is underway to encourage people to look out for dogs that suddenly change their behaviour from a happy to crazy and report it to a ranger, health clinic, or a biosecurity officer.