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Rabies Vaccines and the
    Work of the Rabies Challenge Fund

        The rabies vaccine, depending on what state you live in, it may be approved for dogs as young as three or four months old. This particular vaccine is risky in terms of its reactivity, because it contains a potent amount of inactivated (killed) rabies virus plus strong adjuvants to help stimulate the immune response. Veterinarians often postpone the rabies vaccine until a pet is six months old to give the body more time to develop. I asked Dr. Dodds to talk about the duration of immunity of rabies vaccines, which are made from killed rabies virus.

        Dr. Dodds explained that some people believe modified-live rabies vaccines are still in use, but they are not. Years ago, there was a modified-live rabies formula for cats, and it did occasionally mutate and produce rabies. But today there are no modified-live rabies vaccines in use.

        However, the killed-virus rabies vaccine is extremely potent and should not be administered earlier than necessary. Even though rabies vaccine package labels say it can be given at 12 weeks, Dr. Dodds believes it should not be given before 16 weeks. Recently, California passed legislation to allow rabies vaccines at 12 weeks vs. 16 weeks, which caused a lot of controversy and will continue to do so.

        As to the question of how long rabies vaccines last, according to titer tests, antibodies can remain in an animal’s blood for seven to nine years, and perhaps longer. But again, the question is: are those pets truly protected against the disease?

        The Rabies Challenge Fund recently completed year five of its five and seven-year trials to determine how long the rabies vaccine lasts. They are into year six now. The animals used in the study are living in a kennel breeding facility environment.

        According to antibody titers on the study animals, at year three after vaccination they all showed good immunity. At year four they showed measurable immunity, but by year 5, some of the animals no longer had measurable rabies titers. Dr. Dodds and Dr. Ron Schultz conducted something called a vaccinal challenge (rabies revaccination) that showed the animals all had immune memory cells that responded by producing good rabies antibody titers, even though some of the animals had titers below the 0.1 international units per milliliter level deemed by the CDC to be adequate to protect a person against rabies. So Dr. Dodds and Dr. Schultz believe that even five years post-vaccination, the animals in the study have maintained good immune memory to protect them against rabies should they be exposed.

        What’s lovely about all this is that the animal body is still capable of mounting a response, from immune memory, to the virus. The body innately knows what to do.

        Dr. Dodds wants to clarify that even though we know immune memory response was boosted in the animals in the study, it doesn’t mean the USDA or individual states will accept extending the length between rabies booster vaccinations. The Rabies Challenge Fund hasn’t reached that stage in the process yet. They are still developing data that, quite frankly, many people might not want to see published, and that data is being gathered from canine titers rather than trying to extrapolate data from human titer studies to canines.