Animals & Money: New $50 instant rabies test could be a breakthrough

The typical way to figure out if an animal that bit you has rabies is to kill it, cut off its head and express ship it-- unfrozen--to your state health department for a test that will take 10 to 14 days. The state probably won't charge you, but you'll pay shipping costs, spend weeks worrying and--depending on the situation--begin preventive shots that cost $1,500 to $2,500 per person. (Though, on the bright side, they're just shots around the wound, arm or buttocks, no longer the painful stomach injections people scare each other with.)

So, you can see why a $50 test that can detect rabies in an animal's saliva in a half an hour would be such a huge breakthrough. (You can't test rabies by blood.) And that's just what Dyne Immune says they've got. Though it warns that you can't totally trust the negative results: "A negative result does not guarantee that rabies is not present." It did test the procedure at their local animal shelter, where a kitten tested positive, then died the next day.

If this works out, the potential is huge. About 40,000 Americans are treated for exposure to rabies every year. That costs about $80 million. Two or three people die each year, according to the CDC. In 2006, states paid to test 6,400 animals. Only 6% of the animals had rabies, but all had to die for the test. That includes 318 cats and 79 dogs. Only 1% of cats and 0% of dogs tested positive.

Rabies is the U.S. is on the rise. Vaccinations pretty much took care of rabies in domestic animals since the 1950s. But since the 1970s, rabies has been increasing in wild animals, especially in the Northeast, the CDC shows. Rabies has been rampant in raccoons in the northeast after some hunting clubs brought some rabid raccoons from the southeast, John Hadidian, head of the Humane Society of the United State's Urban Wildlife program, told me recent. This American Journal of Public Health study traces how it worked: The Southeast, which at the time accounted for 98% of raccoon rabies diagnoses in the country, had commercial animal dealers that would ship thousands of animals up north in cramped cages. One quarter of shipments later studied had rabid animals. Sometimes even the rabid animals had a health certificate. Thanks, hunters.

So, we could really use a test like this to come on line. It would certainly save thousands of animals and taxpayer money. Of course, we're still a long way from there. And I'm a little nervous when I read on Dyne Immune's website that its CEO, V. James deFranco, MD, is "a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for a leader in Liposome drug delivery systems." The website for Maximum Life Research lists him as part of its team. MaxLife sells oral liposome sprays that contain an extract of deer antler velvet used by "movie stars." The products are for anti-aging, insomnia, energy and weight loss.

I really want this test to catch on. I hope it works and spreads worldwide.

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