Rabies Vaccine Research May Save Some Pain

Denise Flaim
Animal House

July 2, 2007

Score one - a big one - for the underdogs.

I've written before about Kris Christine, who is a prime example of what one woman with equal parts outrage and focus can achieve: She pretty much forced the state of Maine to change its annual rabies revaccination requirement from annually to every three years.

So when she called last week with news so exciting she could barely keep her voice from squeaking, I perked up.

"We did it!" she said. "The rabies trials are on!"

Maybe you have no idea what that means. If so, maybe you should read on.

While in recent years many vets have embraced progressive attitudes about vaccination, many still cling to outdated ideas. Among them: giving "annual shots" for core canine diseases such as distemper and parvovirus when three years is considered to be the minimum interval between boosters, or giving vaccines that are not recommended at all, such as coronavirus. (If this sound like your vet, consult the American Animal Hospital Association's newly updated canine vaccination guidelines at aahanet.org, and consider switching to a veterinary professional who is not still in the Pleistocene era.)

Of all the vaccines veterinarians administer, rabies is the most sacrosanct, largely because the disease is zoonotic, a fancy word that means transmissible to humans. Rabies in the only vaccine mandated by law for dogs and cats; New York, like many states, requires revaccination at three-year intervals, which is the longest. (A handful of states, including Alabama, still mandate annual boosters.)

But some veterinary immunologists believe the rabies vaccine confers a duration of immunity that exceeds three years - in fact, as much as five or seven years. Problem is, there have been no clinical trials - in which dogs are vaccinated and then exposed to the disease - to prove that. And vaccine companies, which normally conduct the trials, have a strong economic incentive not to. After all, how much sense does it make to spend a ton of money to be told consumers need less of your product than you are selling?

Which brings us to Christine. In her research on overvaccination, she came across two veterinarians who have made it their life's work to nudge their peers toward a less-can-be-more approach to vaccination: Jean Dodds of Hemopet in Garden Grove, Calif., and Ronald Schultz at University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison, who incidentally helped formulate the American Animal Hospital Association's guidelines.

Dodds has lectured endlessly on adverse reactions associated with the rabies vaccine. They include autoimmune diseases of the thyroid, joints, blood, eyes, skin, kidney, liver, bowel and central nervous system; anaphylactic shock; aggression; seizures; epilepsy; and fibrosarcomas at injection sites, especially in cats.

For his part, Schultz has performed serological studies that documented rabies antibody titer counts at levels known to confer immunity seven years after vaccination.

But what they needed to do was to formally prove the rabies vaccine's long-term duration of immunity, so state-mandated intervals for boosters could be extended.

So, two years ago, Christine teamed up with Dodds to create the Rabies Challenge Fund, which needed $177,000 to fund the studies' first-year budget.

Which brings us to Christine's euphoric phone call: Thanks to the contributions of many dog clubs, veterinarians and concerned owners, they now have the money to start.

The concurrent 5- and 7-year challenge studies trials will begin next month under the supervision of Schultz, who is volunteering his time as principal investigator. The University of Wisconsin will donate all the overhead costs.

"I've been an activist for a long time," Dodds says, "and this is the first time I've seen the public mount a grass-roots effort because the veterinary profession and the vaccine industry haven't done anything."

Five years from now, Schultz will likely have the proof of what he has known all along: That the rabies vaccine provides long-term immunity. In the face of that, the government can lengthen the mandated revaccination intervals.

This is too late to benefit my 7-year-old dog, who went for her rabies booster this weekend. But not for her 1-year-old daughter, who might be spared several unnecessary revaccinations over her lifetime.

Until then, the Rabies Challenge Fund needs more donations: Looming on the horizon each year is a $150,000 annual budget that must still be met.

The Rabies Challenge Fund is as grass roots as you can get. Individuals can and do make a difference.

Send donations to The Rabies Challenge fund at Rabies Challenge Fund, c/o Hemopet, 11330 Markon Drive, Garden Grove, CA 92841. For more information on The Rabies Challenge Fund, visit RabiesChallengeFund.org.


Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.