September 28 is World Rabies Day, which is intended to raise awareness about the impact of human and animal rabies, how easy it is to prevent it, and how to eliminate the main global sources. To commemorate World Rabies Day, we are featuring this story we originally posted in September 2009.
A routine vaccination Kris Christine thought would protect her dog Meadow led her on a quest to change rabies vaccination schedules nationwide so other dogs won’t get sick like hers did.
Over the years Christine helped extend rabies boosters to every three years in all 50 states and co-founded the Rabies Challenge Fund, which is financing a study on the long-term effectiveness of the rabies vaccine. But Christine believes the vaccine can remain effective longer than three years and thinks canines are getting over-vaccinated – which means they can suffer vaccine side-effects.
Christine, a Maine resident, started her campaign in 2004 after her dog Meadow fell ill following his biennial rabies shot. The state required dogs to receive rabies boosters every two years even though the vaccine is good for three years, she said.
Two months later the six-year-old Meadow developed a lump on the leg where he got the shot. Veterinarians checked Meadow twice, then the third time the yellow Labrador was diagnosed with a mast cell tumor.
“I could still see the syringe hole in the center of the tumor,” Christine said. “It looked like a little volcano.”
The cancer spread to his lymph nodes, but Meadow lived for four years until he succumbed to the disease.
When Meadow first got cancer, Christine researched rabies vaccinations and learned that pets may develop injection-site fibro sarcoma from rabies vaccinations as well as autoimmune diseases, epilepsy and other life-threatening disorders.
“I personally believe the rabies shot caused the cancer,” Christine said. “I don’t have proof of this, but a couple months after the rabies booster he developed a mast cell tumor directly on the site of the booster…I’m not saying it was definitely the cause even though I believe it.”
Christine petitioned Maine to change the two-year rule to three when she got the biopsy results. State officials eventually changed the law. Convinced that dogs are being over-vaccinated, Christine teamed with veterinarians W. Jean Dodds and Ronald Schultz in 2007 to form the Rabies Challenge Fund.
Christine has educated legislators and agencies in all 50 states about the potential side effects of rabies shots. All states now require boosters every three years but some communities still call for more frequent vaccinations.
Last year Christine helped change the ordinance in Wichita, Kansas from annual rabies shots to every three years. Alabama used to require vaccination every two years, but now has a new three-year law that became effective August 1. Arkansas is finalizing its three-year protocol, and Killeen, Texas officials want to change the county’s rabies ordinance. Cheyenne, Wyoming went from one year to three years in its rabies ordinance. Christine is still working on some communities in Tennessee and Indiana.
All vaccines can trigger bad reactions in dogs, Dodds said, but the group focuses on rabies because they are mandated by law.
Dog parents are required by law to vaccinate their dogs against rabies and must follow their local ordinances that dictate when to get shots.
The problem is that the United States doesn’t have standardized rabies booster schedules. Many communities require three-year rabies vaccinations, but some call for yearly rabies shots, which Christine considers excessive.
Rabies vaccines differ from vaccines such as those for hepatitis and parvo because the rabies vaccine uses killed viruses. Vaccines for hepatitis and parvo have modified live viruses so they spark life-time immunity in recipients, Christine said. But the killed rabies viruses don’t illicit a strong immunological response, so manufacturers add inflammatory agents such as aluminum salts to enhance the immunological responses. However, Christine said the World Health Organization labeled the additives in rabies vaccines as carcinogens. The types of additives in rabies vaccines vary by manufacturer.
In her research, Christine learned of a 1992 French study that stated vaccinated dogs remain immune to rabies for five years. Other research concluded the rabies vaccine can stay active a minimum of three years.
Rabies Challenge Fund volunteers say the rabies vaccines keep dogs immune from five to seven years. To prove their point, volunteers must conduct a challenge study that will prove dogs need the shots every five or seven years. Volunteers need $200,000 to fund the year of research at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. The university waived overhead costs for the project but is requiring the group to pay $140,000 by November to allow the research to go forward.
So far the group has raised $75,000. Christine blames the sputtering economy for fund-raising woes.
The study involves 80 Beagles that were bred specifically for research. A group of 40 Beagles are in the five-year study and the others are in the seven-year study. In each group half of the dogs are inoculated against rabies, while the other half isn’t.
The dogs live in a “family-style facility where they eat and play,” Christine said. At the end of five years, the first group will be injected with doses of live rabies viruses.
A research scientist will be assigned to each dog and monitor him for any signs of rabies. At the first symptom, such as malaise, the dog will be humanely euthanized then scientists will study the canine’s brain. All dogs that were exposed to live rabies would have to be euthanized at the end of the research because of safety issues.
If the study is successful, then the group will continue with the seven-year study. After that the group may test the inflammatory agents in the vaccines. The United States Department of Agriculture requires this study – otherwise the vaccine companies won’t change, Christine said.
“Basically every dog’s life is precious,” Christine said. “We do not like this but this is required if we want the booster laws extended. If laws do not change, then vastly more dogs will suffer and die of adverse reaction to rabies vaccines.”
Brie Lang, a USDA spokeswoman, confirmed the need for the challenge studies.
“In order for the labeling to say that this vaccine is for five years, a study must be performed on dogs for five years,” Lang said.
The USDA will not accept titers tests, which measure the amount of rabies antibodies in a dog’s system, Lang added.
The challenge study is unnecessary, said Walt Stone, a Virginia resident. The reporting rate of adverse reactions is terrible and the number of cases is comparatively small, Stone said.
“What makes it right to have 20, 30, 40 animals in a control group, we’re talking about a good number of animals, take those guys and kill them to preserve somebody else’s animal?” Stone asked.
Some dogs may have suffered adverse reactions because they were old or sick and not because of the rabies vaccine, Stone added. He learned of the challenge study through a friend and began researching it. He said the group’s Web site is misleading and doesn’t mention the research being conducted.
Stone has contacted the Humane Society about the research and has voiced his protests on Web sites. Veterinarian Hematologist W. Jean Dodds has often heard objections to the challenge study. She and fellow veterinarian Ron Schultz have worked in the field for 40 years, and she has raised questions about problems vaccines can pose since the 1970s. A mandatory rabies vaccination can affect an older, sick dog unless the dog gets a waiver. Less frequent rabies shots will have younger, stronger dogs getting boosters but avoiding them in their senior years, Dodds said. Dogs have less risks of getting rabies since 2007, when canine rabies ceased to exist in the U.S. Dogs can still contract rabies from wild animals, but Dodds said that isn’t likely with older dogs who probably stay inside more.
In the 1970s Dodds worked for the New York State Department of Health and encountered canine patients suffering from bone marrow failure. Dodds found the sick dogs had been vaccinated for parvo 30 days before.
After 21 days the dogs’ bone marrow recovered. Dodds then read a study about children with congenital red blood cell production who got sick with the parvo virus but recuperated after 21 days. That duration, 21 days, is the time the infected blood cell produces more infected cells.
Dodds realized that the parvo vaccine in dogs was acting like the parvo virus in children. Dodds and Schultz encountered resistance when they talked about adverse reactions to vaccinations. Vaccinations are needed, Dodds said, but over-vaccination can be damaging.
Others have noted adverse reactions to vaccinations. Dodds cited a study from the 2008 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association stating that from April 2004 to March 2007 there were 10,000 adverse events for all species, and 65 percent of them involved dogs. She has seen a Pug die 40 minutes after a routine vaccination. She has also seen sores, tumors and gangrene on ear tips after vaccinations.
The hematologist once compiled 100 reports of bad reactions with rabies shots and sent them to the USDA. Agency officials responded they couldn’t investigate it because they didn’t have enough staff to review the cases, and suggested Dodds lobby the government for more USDA funding.
Lawmakers are under the impression that immunizing a dog more than every three years would make the animal more immune to the virus when the vaccine can stay effective for three years, Dodds said. There is no difference between rabies vaccines labeled for one year or three, she added. Some vaccines are labeled for one year so puppy parents are compelled to bring their dog back for a booster.
General practioner veterinarians may not know everything about immunology because the field is moving so fast.
The American Animal Hospital Association issued guidelines in 2003 and 2006 that advocated longer intervals between booster shots for adult animals and advised intervals between shots can be extended to three years. The guidelines also emphasized reporting undesired outcomes from vaccinations. The AAHA guidelines were revised in 2006 to highlight vaccine development and shelter medicine. The American Veterinary Medical Association also issued similar guidelines, Dodds said.
Every practioner has seen bad reactions to drugs, vaccines or other medical substances, wrote AAHA President Dr. Gregg Takashima in an e-mail.
“External and internal factors can influence the chance for an adverse effect, like stress, current immune status, age and other medications,” he wrote. “So it can be difficult to predict or explain many of them.”
Takashima added that vaccine companies also keep track of adverse reactions.
Dodds said laws surrounding rabies vaccinations must be standardized and doses adjusted to each dog’s size. And veterinarians can’t ignore dog patients reacting adversely to vaccinations.
“It’s easier to look the other way and assume it wasn’t the vaccine,” Dodds said. “They see something happen but they’re reluctant to put a link to it.”
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