Rabies: The Original Horror Story

Claire Mawisa
By Claire Mawisa | Follow @clairemawisa
Claire Mawisa is a South African television presenter, model and radio personality best known for being an SABC1 continuity presenter (1999-2001), as well as for co-hosting the SABC1 music variety show One, from 2002-2003. After many years working in radio and television, and opening her own business, Claire joined the [...] See full profile

I travelled to Nseleni just outside of Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal to meet Ntando, a father whose son passed away a month ago from rabies. He struggled to describe the harrowing scenes at the hospital. Wandile, his 6-year-old had become extremely aggressive and had to be strapped to the bed because he was violently biting the nurses and making sounds that can only be described as beastlike. Before being admitted to hospital, he would share with his father that he was scared of things trying to kill him. Ntando and the doctors helplessly watched Wandile deteriorate. Only post mortem tests would be conclusive of rabies.


The rabies symptoms in humans take a few days to show, but once they present themselves, there is nothing that can be done to save the patient. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, excessive salivation, hyperactivity, hallucinations, agitation and paralysis. If not treated within 48 hours of exposure, it is almost always fatal.

“Rabies is the original horror story,” states project manager for Rabies Control Veterinary Services for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in KZN, Dr. Kevin le Roux. He puts it into context and says, “Think of movies based on werewolves and zombies, where an individual is transformed into a ghastly, abominable creature that in no way resembles the pleasant person you once knew. This is very similar to what happens in humans once showing symptoms of rabies”. Dr. Daniel Fiandero, an Emergency Specialist at Mediclinic shares the same sentiment, describing how the symptoms are so horrific for the patient, and traumatising for both the family and the medical staff.

Dr. Fiandero says that cases like Wandile’s are unfortunately not unusual in KZN. Children and animals have a natural affinity towards one another, and since rabies can spread by just a lick from a dog, it’s tough then to backtrack to what led to a child’s illness once the symptoms start showing. But by then, it’s too late.

The experts we spoke to say that rabies in KwaZulu-Natal can be considered an epidemic. Sizwe Mchunu of the Democratic Alliance in KZN says the crisis has not been managed well, and it seems like action to stop the spread of rabies is slow considering human lives have already been lost. The challenges in eradicating rabies completely are many; there are thousands of rural and township animals that roam freely across vast areas in the province. Some of these animals need to be inoculated up to once a year, and with a limited amount of resources and personnel to carry this out, it seems like the crisis could be far from over. Worse still is that education around rabies and awareness on preventative measures has not yet reached many rural communities, where the demographic is at a higher risk of contracting one of the deadliest diseases known to man.

Doctors describe it as the most agonising way to die. Worse still is that rabies is described as a cunning disease – spread easily from one carrier to another. But there is hope. It is possible to eliminate rabies, many first world countries have done it. Granted, our challenges in South Africa are very different, and require us to approach the disease with a multi-faceted solution. It is not just one government department’s problem, it is a problem that civil society needs to participate in solving.

I left Nseleni with a heavy heart, Ntando’s family still trying hard to piece together how their 6-year-old child could become sick and pass away in a matter of a few short weeks. They were still learning about the disease long after their child had passed on, and I wondered if that brought them comfort, or just more questions.