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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dog owners’ growing vaccine skepticism raises rabies risk

A fatal disease that had been all but wiped out in the U.S. could see a comeback due to a wave of anti-vaccination sentiment from people across the political spectrum.

(CN) — More than half of American dog owners now doubt the value of rabies vaccines and other immunizations, a troubling development that could potentially lead to a resurgence of a horrific illness that the U.S. had succeeded in virtually eliminating.

Rabies is nearly 100% fatal in humans, but in recent years only one to three cases have been reported in the U.S. annually. In the developing world, however, where vaccine access is spotty, about 59,000 people die from it each year, 40% of them children.

Despite this, a new survey of 2,200 American dog owners shows that 37% think dog vaccines are unsafe, 22% think they’re ineffective and 30% think they’re unnecessary. In all, 53% of respondents endorsed at least one of those beliefs.

“I am very worried that canine vaccine hesitancy could lead to an increase in rabies cases,” said Gabriella Motta, a veterinarian in suburban Philadelphia who co-authored the study. 

Motta said that nearly every day she encounters dog owners who refuse or are reluctant to vaccinate their pets. “In my discussions with other vets I have found that many of my colleagues experience a similar phenomenon,” she said.

“I’m not ready to say there’s a grave danger” of a rabies reoccurrence, said Matt Motta, Gabriella’s brother, who teaches health law at Boston University and co-authored the study. “But is there a potential? Absolutely.”

To keep the disease from spreading, a vaccination rate above 70% of the dog population is necessary, according to the World Health Organization. But in the U.K., a 2018 study of more than 2,000 dog owners found that 25% of dogs didn’t get their primary vaccinations when young and 23% haven’t received boosters.

“That’s a huge problem,” because the country appears to be skating very close to the danger zone, Matt Motta worried.

While rabies vaccinations aren’t legally required in the U.K., almost all U.S. states mandate them, and “we suspect most people comply,” Matt Motta said, based on the low incidence of the disease here. “But we don’t know that. Reporting standards vary by state and there is no federal database.”

At least 70% of dogs need to be vaccinated to prevent the spread of rabies, but in the U.K., one study shows the figure has already fallen almost to that level. (Joel Martinez, Wikimedia Commons via Courthouse News)

The Mottas’ study is the first to interview U.S. dog owners, but it builds on a 2021 survey of more than 2,200 veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada that found that 44% said dog owners “often” expressed concerns that vaccines were unnecessary and 34% said dog owners commonly feared that vaccines could cause illness.

The Mottas’ survey found no significant difference in vaccine hesitancy between men and women or between people of different races, although college-educated dog owners were less likely to be skeptical. But Republicans — especially Trump supporters — were significantly more likely to question the value of vaccines, said Matt Motta, who noted that skepticism of dog vaccines tends to correlate with skepticism about other vaccines, such as childhood MMR and Covid shots.

A recent Morning Consult poll found that 79% of Democrats plan to take the new Covid booster this year, compared to only 39% of Republicans.

The partisan divide is a new phenomenon. A 2009 Pew poll found exactly equal support for childhood vaccines among Republicans and Democrats, and a 2018 study of childhood vaccine refusal found “hot spots” not only in rural areas but in left-leaning cities such as Seattle, Detroit and Portland, Oregon.

The shift is perhaps ironic given that Trump himself took credit for the initial Covid vaccine and labeled it “one of the greatest miracles of the ages.” But as the pandemic wore on, many Trump supporters came to doubt the veracity of medical authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO, and many felt resentment at President Biden’s vaccine mandates that included remote workers and people with natural immunity.


It’s important to note, though, that vaccine skepticism was growing even before the pandemic on both the left and the right, and many Democrats are also dubious about vaccines, said Dominik Stecula, a political science professor at Colorado State University and another of the study’s co-authors.

In presidential polls, about 20% of Democratic voters are rejecting President Biden in favor of noted vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. or self-help guru Marianne Williamson, who said she “agonized” over whether to vaccinate her children.

Vaccine skepticism has had serious consequences before. Although measles was declared eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, in early 2015 an outbreak that began the previous December with an unvaccinated 11-year-old at Disneyland spread to more than 300 people. Four years later, an outbreak of 1,300 cases resulted from travel by people who weren’t vaccinated.

Much of the anti-vax enthusiasm can be traced to “alternative health media” that promote a $30 billion industry of pseudoscientific diets, detoxes and supplements and raise doubts about traditional medicine, Stecula said.

Promoters of these products target both ends of the political spectrum. On the right are figures such as Alex Jones and Dr. Mehmet Oz, according to Stecula, while many on the left frequent a wide variety of natural-foods stores and other outlets. “Go to Whole Foods and there are all kinds of pills and essential oils,” he pointed out.

Amy Ford, a Brooklyn veterinarian, said in a 2017 interview that vaccine skepticism is “actually much more common in the hipster-y areas.”

And while natural foods stores have been a staple in certain communities since the 1970s, what’s new is that the products are being heavily promoted on social media by influencers such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian. “Before it wasn’t advertised on TV or in newspapers,” Stecula said, “but now there’s infrastructure. Aaron Rodgers is talking about Ivermectin and ayahuasca. The most popular podcast in the country is Joe Rogan, and he talks about this on a regular basis.”

Vani Hari, who blogs as Food Babe and once tweeted that flu vaccines “have been used as a genocide tool,” had almost 1.2 million followers on Facebook in February 2022 and almost 821,000 on Instagram. And Natural News, a website whose founder once called vaccines “medical child abuse,” had almost 3 million followers before it was banned by Facebook in 2020.

This media onslaught “has populist appeal on both sides” and has led to “a long-term decline in trust in science and universities and research,” according to Stecula. “People don’t like Big Pharma, they don’t like chemicals and they want to control what they put in their bodies.”

Even a few dog professionals are skeptical of the typical rabies vaccine regimen, which includes a shot during puppyhood, another a year later and then boosters every one-to-three years.

But vaccine immunity often lasts for seven years, said Judy Hetkowski, a dog breeder in Boulder, Colorado.

“You can’t make a protected dog more protected, but every vaccine stresses the immune system,” Hetkowski said. She worries the stress could lead to dogs contracting other illnesses.

Vets have “a financial incentive” to over-vaccinate, she said, because the schedule encourages owners to bring in their pets regularly for a full exam. She suggested that dogs can instead be given a titer, or antibody test, to see if they really need a vaccine, although titers can cost as much as $200.

Proposed laws that would allow titers in lieu of vaccines were introduced recently in New Hampshire and Connecticut, although they didn’t go anywhere. The Connecticut bill would also have allowed vets to give smaller vaccine doses to smaller dogs, a policy promoted by some alternative-medicine advocates. While there is some evidence that smaller dogs have more adverse reactions to vaccines, the overall number is low and there is little proof that smaller doses are equally effective.

The risk of rabies is exacerbated by the apparently growing number of stray dogs. While few statistics are kept on the number of feral dogs outside of shelters, a rise in the number of dogs coming into shelters suggests a rise in feral dogs, and since 2021 the number of shelter dogs has risen dramatically. 

“Shelters are screaming from the rooftops that they’ve been in crisis for a while, and it’s not letting up,” said Stephanie Filer, executive director of Shelter Animals Count, an organization that compiles shelter data.

One of the few cities to make an exhaustive study of the feral population, San Antonio, estimated in 2019 that there were 2,400 stray dogs within the city limits, or about one for every 600 residents. Another 32,000 dogs have owners but are allowed to roam outside unrestrained.

The risk of a rabies resurgence is taking a serious toll on veterinarians, said Gabriella Motta. “I absolutely think that interactions with unvaccinated or undervaccinated animals can lead to veterinarians' stress, burnout and considering leaving the profession,” she said.

Motta was recently exposed to a sick unvaccinated animal. “While awaiting rabies testing results, I’m plagued with anxiety," she said. "It’s hard to get through the day without thinking about the individuals who were potentially exposed, the lethality of the virus and the next steps to follow if the testing comes back positive.

“Every time our staff interacts with an unvaccinated or undervaccinated animal, we are nervous,” she added. “We must take extra precautions to not get bitten, as the consequences could be devastating.”

Categories / Consumers, Health, National, Science

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