Even as the Agriculture Ministry's Anti-Rabies Unit continues vaccinating farmers and livestock to curb the current rabies outbreak in Barrackpore, concerns have been raised about the possibility of the virus being transmitted to humans through stray dogs or pets.
Dean of the Faculty of Food & Agriculture at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Dr Mark Wuddivira confirmed that the rabies virus is zoonotic, meaning it can be naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.
Speaking to Guardian Media, Dr Wuddivira said although bats play an important role in the ecosystem, they are also vectors to diseases.
"The usual vectors for rabies are bats. Foxes and racoons are also reported to be vectors. The outbreak in Barrackpore is due to bats transmitting the virus to cattle by their infected saliva and
bites," Dr Wuddivira said.
He added, " Rabies is transmissible between species. It is also zoonotic so infected dogs can spread to their owners or even strangers through infected saliva or bites."
He noted that vaccination was important, noting that rabies vaccines are available for humans and some livestock.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Kazim Hosein says the Ministry has been managing the rabies outbreak.
He said up to 31 March, a total of 1,881 animals were vaccinated including 786 cattle, 659 sheep, 403 goats, and 33 buffalo.
The Minister said although the zoonotic nature of rabies gives the impression that T&T has canine rabies, this is not the case.
"It is true that a dog can possibly get rabies from a bat or rabid cow, if bitten or exposed. However, a sustained dog to dog transmission, due to spillover of virus from the bat population is less likely," he said.
He noted that an infected dog poses a greater risk to humans because of its closeness to humans and its tendency to bite in defence. The Minister revealed that Canine transmitted rabies was last reported in a dog in 1914, and in a human in 1912.
"We don't have fox or raccoon variant rabies in Trinidad. Although we have mongoose in Trinidad, we did not find the rabies virus in this animal population the last time a survey was done or on any mongoose tested since," Hosein said.
Currently, there is bat transmitted paralytic rabies in Trinidad but not in Tobago, he added.
He said veterinarians have been assessing rabies on a case-by-case basis before recommending vaccinations.
Of the 68 species of bats in T&T, only two species, both vampire bats – the bovine-loving "Desmodus rotundus" and the white-winged "Diaemus youngi" that feeds on birds – can transmit rabies.
Saying the situation is being closely monitored, Hosein explained: "Veterinarians and relevant staff at risk of exposure to the virus are vaccinated. If a suspect rabies case is encountered, the information is expected to be reported to the office of the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) in accordance with the Animals (Disease and Importation) (Amendment) Act, 2020."
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture in a statement said night trapping of vampire bats continues to be an important component in controlling the vector for the rabies virus.
In the last 50 years, there were five major rabies outbreaks in the livestock population in 1974, 1997–1998, 2000, 2010 and 2012–2013, with the highest annual case number occurring in 1997 with 56 cases.
The last case of paralytic rabies in a human was in 1937.
Anyone wanting to report cases of rabies could call the following numbers.
• Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory- 662-5678/645-4593
• Caroni Office-672-4411
• St. George Office-662-5986
• El Reposo Office-668-2712 or 668-2449
• Wallerfield Office-667-8488
• Craignish Breeding Unit-655-8110
• Penal Demonstration Station-647-4672
• Rio Claro Demonstration Station-644-2326
Reporter: Radhica De Silva