Vets Concerned About Rabies Outbreaks Amid Vaccine Shortages

Veterinarians are struggling to keep pets vaccinated as the world fights a surge in rabies outbreaks.
Vets Concerned About Rabies Outbreaks Amid Vaccine Shortages
Pit bulls, a large, muscular dog breed, were originally developed as fighting dogs. Today, they are one of the most likely breeds to end up in a shelter. Photo taken at East Ridge Animal Services shelter in East Ridge, Tennessee on April 13, 2022. (Jackson Elliott/The Epoch Times)
Autumn Spredemann
Veterinarians in the United States and other countries are grappling with animal welfare challenges amid ongoing gaps in rabies vaccine availability. The timing is problematic; a December 2023 study noted a spike in global rabies cases since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rabies accounts for 59,000 human deaths in more than 150 countries per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It’s a disease that is nearly always fatal once symptoms start. Human transmission is usually from the bite, scratch, or lick of an infected animal.
Post-exposure rabies vaccines for humans are critical. Around 60,000 Americans are bitten or scratched by a suspected rabies-carrying animal every year.

Dogs are responsible for 99 percent of transmission cases to a person. And the reduction of rabies infection rates has always hinged on the widespread vaccination of domestic animals. It’s why animal welfare advocates have spent decades waging aggressive information and vaccination campaigns.

But now there’s an animal vaccine shortage.

“The inability to provide timely rabies vaccines has disrupted our standard service pattern and overall pet healthcare,” Michael Thompson told The Epoch Times.

Dr. Thompson is the founder of website Pets Food Safety and works as a veterinarian in Austin, Texas. He said weeks of rabies vaccine availability gaps have affected his practice and his clients.

“Our clinic has been directly impacted over the last few months ... We’ve had to prioritize vaccine allocation based on several factors like pet age, health status, and risk exposure,” he said.

In some cases, pet owners have had to reschedule their appointments multiple times due to the unavailability of rabies vaccines, Dr. Thompson said, causing “significant distress.”

“Unfortunately, this shortage has led to a delay in yearly vaccinations for many pets,” he said.

It’s a situation that is affecting animal welfare professionals in multiple states. In Ohio, veterinarian and founder of PetMe Twice, Dr. Mollie Newton, told The Epoch Times she’s faced the same challenge.

“The scarcity of vaccines has had a direct impact on our practice. We’ve had to reschedule some rabies vaccinations, prioritizing animals at higher risk of exposure,” Dr. Newton said.

“To manage the shortage, our clinic has implemented a triage system.”

Links In a Chain

Rabies vaccination gaps create a greater risk of the disease being reintroduced to America’s domestic animal population, and subsequent spikes in reported human encounters with the disease, research shows.

“If you ask people about rabies, they’ll tell you about domestic animals. What they’re not appreciative of is that the vaccination of those pets has essentially eliminated the acquisition of rabies from dogs and cats,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told The Epoch Times.

Of the 4,000 U.S. animals tested for rabies annually, 90 percent of those that come up positive are wild creatures, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The majority of these rabid wild animals are skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats.
The raccoon bit Chandler’s hand, possibly spreading the rabies virus. (Fox screenshot)
The raccoon bit Chandler’s hand, possibly spreading the rabies virus. (Fox screenshot)

But with prolonged disruptions in rabies vaccine availability, that could change.

“Slowly, over time. In rural areas and in some suburban areas where pets are permitted to run free, we’ll start to see the reintroduction of rabies into the domestic animal population,” Dr. Schaffner said.

Some veterinarians have already seen an uptick in rabies cases in their area. “I’ve witnessed a slight increase in reported rabies cases in our area which, I believe, can be partly attributed to the vaccine shortage,” Dr. Thompson said.

The scarcity of animal rabies vaccines can also directly impact human health since U.S. hospitals carry limited supplies of post-exposure vaccines and rabies immunoglobulin, according to Dr. Schaffner.

That’s because pharmacies, including those in hospitals, use what he calls a “just in time” ordering and delivery system.

Gone are the days when the majority of pharmacies carry large backstocks of medicine. Dr. Schaffner said the ordering and delivery of vital medications on demand has become more advanced. However, this becomes problematic if a surge of U.S. rabies cases requires more hospitals and pharmacies to order more post-exposure treatments in a short time window.

The manufacturing base for post-exposure rabies vaccines for humans is “extremely fragmented,” according to the WHO.

As of 2020, human rabies vaccines span 24 manufacturers and 27 products, with 85 percent of the total supply concentrated in China and India.

At the moment, heavy reliance on China for critical human medications is creating shortages for Americans, which Dr. Schaffner said is almost unbelievable in a country as developed as the United States.

It’s all the more reason why, as he put it, “every little doggie and kitty” needs to be vaccinated against rabies. He said it’s the best way to ensure there won’t be a sudden spike in demand for the indispensable—and the only known—treatment for human rabies transmission.

Last September, the USDA announced the rollout of the next installment in its five-year plan to manage wildlife rabies in an effort to protect U.S. residents and their pets.

Some of these measures include animal surveillance and the dropping of oral vaccines for wild animal consumption. The agency further stated the cost of rabies prevention and control in the United States is growing and is expected to surpass $600 million annually.

Currently, 13 different animal rabies vaccines from four manufacturers are approved for use in the United States.

The Epoch Times contacted all four manufacturers—Merck Animal Health, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, Elanco Animal Health, and Zoetis—but didn’t receive a response.

Animal welfare professionals are expressing heightened concern in areas where chances for wildlife encounters with domestic pets are high. “For pet owners, this shortage might mean having to wait longer for vaccinations. This is worrying, especially for pets who might run into wildlife or unvaccinated animals,” Dr. Sabrina Kong, senior veterinary contributor at We Love Doodles, told The Epoch Times.

She said in northern California, some of her colleagues have also been affected. “Working with animal shelters and rescues has given me firsthand insight into the challenges posed by the rabies vaccine shortage.”

Moreover, it’s not just a United States problem.

U.K. veterinary surgeon and senior editor at Hamster Answers, Dr. Alex Crow, told The Epoch Times that pets in his country are also dealing with the consequences of a rabies vaccine shortage.

“As the head vet at a busy city shelter, I’ve seen firsthand how tough the recent rabies vaccine shortage has been. In the past few months, not having a reliable vaccine supply has caused some real challenges,” he said.

Workers package rabies vaccine at a lab where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Shenyang, in China's northeast Liaoning province, on June 9, 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers package rabies vaccine at a lab where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Shenyang, in China's northeast Liaoning province, on June 9, 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr. Crow explained his shelter normally gets shipments of rabies vaccines twice a year to innoculate new strays and run low-cost community vaccine clinics. But last spring, the shelter’s supplier said they couldn’t fill the usual order due to “production issues.” It was a domino effect from there, forcing Dr. Crow’s shelter to delay the vaccination of many animals.

And the shortages persist. “I’ve talked to other vets at other shelters and clinics, too. Some are down to their very last few doses with no end in sight. A few have even had to stretch their vaccines as far as possible by only giving one-year shots instead of the regular three years. None of these are great options,” Dr. Crow said.

“I hope to shed light on the real threats and develop sensible next steps. Public health and vulnerable shelter animals depend on consistent access to this important vaccine.”

Currently, some UK health care clinics are reporting a “national rabies vaccine shortage” for humans. One travel clinic there noted that no further supplies of the vaccine Rabipur will be available until July 2024, forcing the importation of 10,000 vials of a different brand from the European Union.

Foreign Imports

The majority of rabies cases, both animal and human, occur in underdeveloped countries. India accounts for an estimated 36 percent of all annual rabies-related deaths, the majority of which are due to dog bites.

Recognizing the risk associated with importing rabid animals from foreign countries, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiated a temporary ban on the entry of animals from nations identified as “high risk” of introducing dog-maintained rabies.

Beginning on Aug. 1, 2023, the ban will remain in place until the end of July this year. This is due to the number of dogs arriving from countries with “insufficient veterinary controls.” The same report cited “inadequate global veterinary supply chains for vaccines” as part of the reason for the ban.

“This whole situation really highlights the need for solid plans to handle vaccine supplies and keep both pets and wild animals safe and healthy,” Dr. Kong said.