The epidemiology of rabies


In epidemiology, three different transmission cycles of rabies viruses are differentiated worldwide, although they can also overlap under certain circumstances. All three can cause fatal infections in both humans and animals. Switzerland has made great efforts to combat rabies and since 1999 has been officially regarded as free of urban and silvatic rabies.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 59,000 human fatalities every year. Around 99 percent of these cases are due to bites from infected dogs (= urban rabies). Prophylactic vaccination is therefore recommended before travel to rabies-risk countries. Before its eradication, the main form of rabies in Switzerland was silvatic rabies, with the red fox as its reservoir.

Overview of the three rabies cycles differentiated in epidemiology:


Surveillance by the Swiss Rabies Centre

According to the WOAH definition (WOAH, World Organisation for Animal Health), a country or region is considered rabies-free if strict surveillance and documentation of cases is ensured and no new cases are registered over a 24-month period. To maintain this status, Switzerland tests wild and domestic animals that are clinically suspected of having rabies. Every year, samples from various animal species are sent to the Swiss Rabies Centre and tested for virus under the national rabies surveillance programme.

How high is the risk in Switzerland?

Illegal imports

Imports of dogs, cats and ferrets from a rabies-risk country  without adequate vaccination and without following the EU-PETS guidelines (European Pet Travel Scheme) pose the highest risk of reintroducing the virus. Such animals are therefore euthanased in case of doubt. Veterinary practice staff, animal keepers and veterinarians are at increased risk of coming into contact with rabies virus in this way and are therefore recommended to seek prophylactic vaccination.

Bat rabies

Bat rabies can occur even in countries that are free of urban and silvatic rabies. In Switzerland, six cases have been diagnosed in bats to date, the latest of which was in 2023. The risk of transmission to other wild or domestic animals is negligible in practice. A risk of transmission to humans does exist, especially if there is physical contact with a bat (e.g. a bite). In this case, immediate post-exposure prophylaxis is indicated. It is therefore especially important not to touch any sick wild animals or those behaving abnormally, and to inform the gamekeeper.Laut Definition der World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, World Organisation for Animal Health) gilt ein Land oder eine Region als tollwutfrei, wenn eine strenge Überwachung und Dokumentation der Fälle sichergestellt ist und über einen Zeitraum von 24 Monaten kein neuer Fall registriert wird. Um diesen Status aufrechtzuerhalten, werden in der Schweiz Haus- und Wildtiere bei klinischem Verdacht auf Tollwut untersucht. Jedes Jahr werden im Rahmen der Überwachung der Tollwutfreiheit Proben von diversen Tierarten an die Tollwutzentrale geschickt und auf das Virus untersucht.

In detail

Last modification 16.11.2023

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