WSU professor part of a global fight to end rabies in humans


One Washington State University associate professor is dedicating his work toward eradicating rabies, the world’s deadliest infectious disease, in countries like Tanzania in eastern Africa.

Dr. Felix Lankester, a veterinarian and clinical associate professor at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health at Washington State University in Pullman, splits his time between Washington and Tanzania where he is fighting against rabies in dogs.

“I’ve been working in the field of infectious disease research and surveillance for a number of years in East Africa, and with that work I became involved in a rabies control program that was being carried out around the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania,” Lankester said. “And then subsequently to that, I’ve been working for Washington State University, and we run a number of projects in East Africa, and I’m continuing to run and direct a number of research programs … some of which are focused on rabies, specifically how to deliver control programs more efficiently and more cost effectively in rural communities where rabies remains endemic.”

Lankester added rabies often goes unreported, a result of the disease being neglected.

“Without reporting, we can’t really measure the true scale of the problem,” Lankester said. “And so understanding the true burden of the rabies problem is really important.”

He said to do that, education is important, and when somebody dies of apparent neurological symptoms in a rabies-endemic area, rabies should be a consideration.

Rabies awareness in the Western world is equally as important because many people simply aren’t aware of the disease and that it kills 60,000 people a year, Lankester added.

This year in the state of Washington, 13 cases of rabies have been confirmed, including in Thurston County on Aug. 29 after a bat was found on a porch of a residence. In the more immediate area, two cases of rabies were confirmed in Cowlitz County in 2019. The last time a rabies case was reported in Clark County was in 2017.

If rabies is detected soon enough, a series of life-saving vaccines can be administered, otherwise death is a certainty. Lankester explained rabies is transmitted when a person or animal is bitten by a rabid animal or if the saliva comes into contact with an open wound.

“And if that person is not vaccinated or doesn’t get vaccinated within 24 hours, then that virus will likely remain in the wound and make its way to the nervous system,” Lankester said.

Lankester said a person will normally die within a couple of days of becoming symptomatic once the rabies virus enters the nervous system and reaches the brain.

In the fight against the infectious disease, Lankester is directing a large project in the Mara region of Tanzania. The objective of the project is to investigate whether community-led dog vaccinations are more effective than a centralized delivery system, Lankester said. Researchers are determining which method reaches the most dogs and is more cost effective.

By 2030, health officials globally hope to achieve zero cases in human rabies deaths.

“Because of high vaccination levels in dogs and cats in the U.S., rabies in pets or other domesticated animals is relatively rare,” the CDC states. “However, rabies in dogs is common in many other countries. In fact, roughly a quarter of reported human rabies deaths among people in the United States result from dog bites they received during international travel.”

With efforts by Lankester and others around the world, rabies is a preventable disease, the CDC added.