Discovery of a New Species of Rabies Virus
The effectiveness of the Lincoln Park Zoo–led effort to eliminate rabies in Serengeti National Park is often measured in rabies sightings in the park’s wild animals. In recent years we’ve reported one case of rabies in a single wild animal—a civet cat—in Serengeti National Park since the vaccination campaign began in 2003. Now, however, we can revise this number downward.
Phylogenetic analysis of a sample from the civet cat revealed the rabies virus to be a new species, one most similar to a bat Lyssavirus (specifically, West Caucasian bat virus) isolated in eastern Europe. The variant found in the civet cat has been named Ikoma Lyssavirus.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this finding. First, the source of the infecting virus was most likely a bat and not a dog. Second, the virus itself was a different type from the one that causes canine rabies. Because the civet cat died of bat-rabies, that means the incidence of dog-rabies in the national park has actually been zero since we began vaccinating.
Given the frequency with which outbreaks of dog rabies were occurring prior to 2003, this is an impressive statistic. It reinforces the importance of the Serengeti Health Initiative’s annual vaccination campaign for protecting the health of the region’s people, pets and predators alike.
Felix Lankester, M.S., is Lincoln Park Zoo's director of Tanzanian programs.