When you think of rabies you probably think of stray dogs, bats, or raccoons. CDC staff stationed in Kenya recently learned that when it comes to rabies, it’s not always the usual suspects you have to worry about. This August they were hit with an unusual case of rabies in a baby zebra who had taken up residency at a Kenyan safari lodge. The lodge caters to international tourists from all over the world, and it took a herculean effort by the Kenyan Ministry of Health, CDC, and the World Health Organization to track down everyone who might have been exposed to the deadly disease.
Most people who travel to Kenya are looking for close encounters with exotic animals like lions, giraffes, and yes, zebras. Visitors to this particular safari lodge considered themselves lucky when they got to meet Zoe, an orphaned zebra the lodge had adopted. Who doesn’t love baby animals, especially ones as striking as a zebra? Guests were able to visit Zoe up close in the stables where they could feed and pet her. She would nibble on her admirer’s fingers and lick them as they offered treats.
Of course, if you know anything about rabies alarm bells are probably going off in your head right now. The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva, so each visitor who let Zoe nibble or lick them was potentially exposed to the deadly disease.
Why would guests be so eager to pet a rabid animal? Well, Zoe wasn’t showing symptoms yet, in fact she could have been carrying the disease for several months before she actually became symptomatic. Even when she did show signs of illness, staff thought she had a common gastrointestinal ailment. Once Zoe died, the lodge sent her remains to the Ministry of Agriculture to determine what the cause of death was. That’s when the startling news came back that Zoe had actually died of rabies. Things kicked into high gear as the lodge worked with the Kenyan Ministry of Health and the Kenyan Wildlife Services to investigate the case and identify nearly 200 guests that had come in contact with Zoe.
Tourists that had visited Zoe came from 17 different countries and although the safari lodge and Kenya Ministry of Health initially tried to contact each person, they soon realized they were going to need international help. Luckily, CDC has a field office in Kenya and were able to help track down the U.S. visitors that might have been exposed.
“Having CDC on location made this much easier and the response much more rapid.” Said Joel Montgomery, Director of the International Emerging Infectious Disease Program. “This is a great example of why it’s important to have staff deployed in the field before an incident happens.”
CDC staff stationed in Kenya, including members of the Kenyan Field Epidemiology Laboratory Training Program, were able to work alongside local officials, confirming the rabies case, identifying those exposed, and getting important information out to tourists. CDC-Kenya and the Rabies Team back in Atlanta were able to direct tourists to doctors and answer their questions about the disease and possible exposure.
To date, no one has become ill from the incident, which may be attributed to the quick action by the various parties involved. This case is a good reminder that when you visit countries like Kenya, where rabies is endemic, you can never be too careful. Sometimes it’s better to experience the wildlife from a distance rather than up-close and personal.
Want to know more about rabies? Visit CDC’s rabies site for more on the disease and how you can keep yourself and your family safe. Also learn more about what CDC is doing in Kenya and the Kenyan Field Epidemiology Laboratory Training Program, who CDC is a proud partner of.
Tell Us What You Think
Have you ever had a close encounter with wild animals, did you think about the possibility of rabies?
Thank you to Joel Montgomery, Emily Lankau, and Michael Niezgoda for contributing to this post.