National Reference Laboratory/Centre for Rabies: surveillance and diagnosis of rabies in man and animal [NRL/NRC Rabies]

Last updated on 11-12-2018 by Daisy Tysmans

Sciensano's project investigator(s):

In short

The National Reference Centre/Laboratory for Rabies is responsible for the diagnosis of rabies in both humans and animals. We perform routine antibody testing to measure vaccine-induced immunity. We are recognised by the European Commission to perform rabies serology testing in dogs, cats and ferrets in the frame of international pet travel. In addition, a continuous surveillance programme is maintained to exclude the presence of rabies in wild and domestic animals, and to guarantee the rabies-free status of Belgium.

Project summary

Rabies is an invariably fatal infectious disease caused by the rabies virus. Annually, millions of people are exposed to the virus, mainly in developing countries, and 59000 die because of the disease. Most mammals are susceptible to the virus, but infection of humans usually occurs after close contact (bite, scratch, lick) with an infected carnivore (mainly dog) or a bat. Belgium is officially free from the classical rabies virus (a species within the Genus Lyssavirus) since 2001. Our surveillance system aims to guarantee the rabies-free status of Belgium. This rabies-free status only concerns the classic rabies virus and not the related lyssaviruses in bats.

The National Reference Centre/Laboratory (NRC/NRL) performs serology testing for humans and animals to evaluate vaccine-induced immunity. Most of the human samples are submitted to evaluate the immune response after preventive vaccination of people at risk (travellers to endemic regions, veterinarians, soldiers, …). A small portion of the human samples are submitted to confirm the immune response after post-exposure treatment upon contact with a potentially rabid animal. Serology testing in animals is performed in the frame of the European regulations concerning the international movement of pets (dogs, cats and ferrets). Every year, several thousands of sera are tested for rabies antibodies.

Besides serology testing, the NRC/NRL is also responsible for the diagnosis of rabies in clinically suspected humans or animals (both wild and domestic animals). Every year, several hundreds of samples are submitted to our laboratory for diagnosis. In case of animal samples, the analysis is exclusively performed post-mortem and the presence of the virus is demonstrated in the nervous tissue by a direct immunofluorescence assay and/or by polymerase chain reaction (PCR). For humans, samples can be collected ante- (cerebrospinal fluid, saliva, urine, serum) or post-mortem (brain tissue). The tests to diagnose human rabies are identical to those for animals. 

The continuous surveillance of wild and domestic animals is performed in collaboration with the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC). This activity permits to guarantee the rabies-free status of Belgium, since the main threat of re-introduction of the classic rabies virus is associated with the illegal importation of animals from rabies-endemic countries, mainly from Africa and Asia. 

An important part of the wild animals submitted for testing are bats. Indeed, bats are known to be potential carriers of the European Bat Lyssavirus-1 or -2 (EBLV-½), which belong to the same genus (Lyssavirus) as the classical rabies virus. These viruses can cause the same disease as the classic rabies virus. It is important to consult a doctor after a bite or scratch from a bat to consider appropriate anti-rabies treatment.

In 2007 and 2008, two import cases of rabies were confirmed in two dogs. The first case concerned the import of an infected puppy from Morocco and the second case concerned a dog imported from Gambia.

In 2010, we confirmed a case of European bat lyssavirus-1 (EBLV-1) in a serotine bat from Spain. In 2016, a serotine bat from Bertrix tested positive for the presence of EBLV-1. This was the first time we diagnosed the presence of EBLV in a Belgian bat.

Associated Health Topics

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