Modelling the influence of naturally acquired immunity from subclinical infection on outbreak dynamics and persistence of rabies in domestic dogs

20 Jul 2021
Susannah Gold, Christl A. Donnelly, Rosie Woodroffe, Pierre Nouvellet

A number of mathematical models have been developed for canine rabies to explore dynamics and inform control strategies. A common assumption of these models is that naturally acquired immunity plays no role in rabies dynamics. However, empirical studies have detected rabies-specific antibodies in healthy, unvaccinated domestic dogs, potentially due to immunizing, non-lethal exposure. We developed a stochastic model for canine rabies, parameterised for Laikipia County, Kenya, to explore the implications of different scenarios for naturally acquired immunity to rabies in domestic dogs. Simulating these scenarios using a non-spatial model indicated that low levels of immunity can act to limit rabies incidence and prevent depletion of the domestic dog population, increasing the probability of disease persistence. However, incorporating spatial structure and human response to high rabies incidence allowed the virus to persist in the absence of immunity. While low levels of immunity therefore had limited influence under a more realistic approximation of rabies dynamics, high rates of exposure leading to immunizing non-lethal exposure were required to produce population-level seroprevalences comparable with those reported in empirical studies. False positives and/or spatial variation may contribute to high empirical seroprevalences. However, if high seroprevalences are related to high exposure rates, these findings support the need for high vaccination coverage to effectively control this disease.