Rabies virus-neutralising antibodies in healthy, unvaccinated individuals: What do they mean for rabies epidemiology?

13 Feb 2020
Susannah Gold, Christl A. Donnelly, Pierre Nouvellet, Rosie Woodroffe

Rabies has been a widely feared disease for thousands of years, with records of rabid dogs as early as ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts. The reputation of rabies as being inevitably fatal, together with its ability to affect all mammalian species, contributes to the fear surrounding this disease. However, the widely held view that exposure to the rabies virus is always fatal has been repeatedly challenged. Although survival following clinical infection in humans has only been recorded on a handful of occasions, a number of studies have reported detection of rabies-specific antibodies in the sera of humans, domestic animals, and wildlife that are apparently healthy and unvaccinated. These ‘seropositive’ individuals provide possible evidence of exposure to the rabies virus that has not led to fatal disease. However, the variability in methods of detecting these antibodies and the difficulties of interpreting serology tests have contributed to an unclear picture of their importance. In this review, we consider the evidence for rabies-specific antibodies in healthy, unvaccinated individuals as indicators of nonlethal rabies exposure and the potential implications of this for rabies epidemiology. Our findings indicate that whilst there is substantial evidence that nonlethal rabies exposure does occur, serology studies that do not use appropriate controls and cutoffs are unlikely to provide an accurate estimate of the true prevalence of nonlethal rabies exposure.