Challenging the rabies vaccine
September 19, 2005
Think globally, act locally? Kris Christine thinks that's a little limiting.
You may remember this dogged doggie activist from Alna, Maine: In between homeschooling two kids and caring for an Alzheimer's-afflicted dad, last year Christine initiated a successful grass-roots campaign to change her state's rabies-vaccine requirement from two years to three. Then, when she thought vets weren't proactive in educating clients about the risks of overvaccination, she lobbied for legislation - opposed by the state veterinary association, and currently tabled - requiring informed consent before vets uncapped their needles.
This month, Christine announced the Rabies Challenge Fund, which she hopes will raise at least $1 million to study long-term rabies
Veterinary immunologist Jean Dodds, founder of the Hemopet blood bank in Garden Grove, Calif., will act as a trustee for the fund.
Of all the vaccines administered to companion animals, rabies is the only one mandated by law, which varies among states. Given the public health risk - rabies is transmissible to humans and almost always fatal if untreated - the vaccine has become sacrosanct.
While acknowledging the importance of the rabies vaccine, Dodds notes, "it produces more adverse reactions than any other." In addition to acute responses, such as anaphylactic shock, chronic disease also can result, Dodds says. Cats can develop injection-site sarcomas; in dogs, seizure disorders and neurological problems such as Wobbler's syndrome have been noted within weeks of vaccination.
Some veterinarians dismiss the connection between vaccination and immune-mediated disorders, citing a lack of proof. Dodds labels such arguments "analysis paralysis."
"They can say you can't prove it because you don't have a double-blind study," she says. "Meanwhile, the experiential evidence accumulates in leaps and bounds."
The first goal of the Rabies Challenge Fund is to conduct rabies-challenge studies to determine if the vaccine confers immunity for five or more years, instead of three years, the current maximum.
In both trials, which would run concurrently, 10 dogs would receive the rabies vaccine, while a control group of 10 would not. After five years, all 20 dogs would be exposed to rabies, then euthanized to determine if any had contracted the disease. (Though it is standard procedure for dogs in vaccine studies to be euthanized at the end of research, with rabies there is little alternative: Diagnosis requires examination of brain tissue.)
In another two years, the 20 dogs in the seven-year study also would be exposed to the disease, and analyzed in the same fashion.
Veterinary epidemiologist Larry Glickman of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ill., says such home-grown fundraising isn't new.
"Up until a few years ago, there was no rabies vaccine licensed for ferrets, and so, in many states, people couldn't legally own them," he says. Vaccine companies did not see an economic incentive in conducting ferret-specific trials, "so the ferret owners said, 'We'll raise funds.'" A one-year challenge study in ferrets was undertaken, and a vaccine approved.
Glickman's major reservation with the Rabies Challenge Fund is "the welfare thing": How ethical is it to keep dogs isolated for that many years, only to then euthanize them?
While heartrending, Dodds argues, the sacrifice of 40 dogs might spare thousands more from the adverse effects of overvaccination. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will not extend the licensing of rabies vaccines to five or seven years without definitive proof, she notes, and "the vaccine industry has no motivation" to underwrite studies that will likely result in fewer sales.
In addition to the challenge trials, which will cost an estimated $500,000 each, Christine and Dodds say the fund will be used to study adjuvants, the preservatives used in the rabies vaccine.
"Unlike human vaccines, where all adjuvants are required to be the same, there is no such standardization in veterinary medicine," Dodds says. "Companies can add whatever they want."
Finally, the Rabies Challenge Fund would seek to develop a private reporting system for adverse reactions to the rabies vaccine. Currently, consumers can report incidents to the vaccine company, or the USDA, though "they don't have any staff to follow up," Dodds notes.
Donations can be sent to the Rabies Challenge Fund, c/o Hemopet, 11330 Markon Dr., Garden Grove, Calif., 92841; 714-891-2022.