Although virtually every mammal is susceptible to rabies, the natural disease occurs predominantly in carnivores. In different geographic areas, usually one or two species predominate as vectors.
In Europe, the red fox is the most important reservoir host and vector fox population undergoes both annual and seasonal variations in cycles of infection. When the incidence of rabies increases in foxes, it also increases in domestic species such as cattle, sheep, cats and dogs. Human exposure occurs through contact with infected domestic animals.
Oral vaccination of foxes using baits which contain live attenuated vaccines or a recombinant vaccinia-rabies virus is now being undertaken and looks very promising. Where fox rabies or foxes are eliminated, the disease disappears from all other species (except bats). Bat rabies in Europe exists largely as an independent cycle and only occasionally does spill-over to terrestrial mammals occur.
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- In the USA and Canada, rabies is enzootic in several species such as skunks, foxes and racoons, from which it may pass to domestic animals and then man. Bat rabies also occurs but, as in Europe, only occasionally leads to infection in other species.
- In South America, rabies is enzootic in both wildlife (i.e. sylvatic rabies) and dogs (urban rabies). Vampire bats are the most frequent source of infection to cattle, and dogs are the major vector for humans. Control of the disease in the dog population by vaccination leads to a marked drop in human exposure.
- In Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, both wildlife and urban rabies also coexist. A number of wildlife species including wolves, jackals and mongooses act as reservoir hosts, filling the same ecological niche that foxes do in other countries.