IN her office deep inside the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at Glasgow University – past the specimen cases, a musty-smelling library and the raft of tightly packed shelves filled with antiquated tomes – Professor Sarah Cleaveland hands me a wine glass.

Have I stumbled upon the party department of the university? Cleaveland gives a hearty laugh. "Oh dear, I'm afraid this is giving you the wrong impression," she says, smiling.

I hasten to add that my tipple is merely water but Cleaveland, a veterinary surgeon and Professor of Comparative Epidemiology, certainly has good reason to celebrate: she was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of her globally-renowned work on infectious diseases.

When we meet Cleaveland, 55, is preparing for a trip to Tanzania where she has focused much of her work since she arrived in the Serengeti as a volunteer in 1990.

In the years since she has initiated and helped undertake a mass rabies vaccination programme for domestic dogs in the region which has not only prevented hundreds of human deaths, but also protected wildlife species such as the endangered African wild dog.

Her interest was sparked after witnessing first-hand the catastrophic aftermath of a rabies outbreak. "Rabies has had a devastating impact and ultimately became responsible for the local extinction of the African wild dogs population in Serengeti National Park," she says.

"Although I came to it as a vet and knew about rabies, once I started looking into it in detail and trying to find out more about the disease in Africa, I became aware that there were lots of gaps in the information and some basic questions that we didn't know the answers to.

"Rabies is such a terrible problem in terms of human health. When you hear the stories of people who have been affected it is harrowing and hard to remain unmoved."

The good news, says Cleaveland, is that the disease can be prevented because we have the vaccine and tools to do that. The challenge, however, lies in overcoming hurdles such as logistics, geography and socioeconomic factors, as well as enduring myths about the disease.

"Because there is so much wildlife in Africa, the implication and impression has always been that there is no point doing anything about rabies," she says. "It has led to quite a lot of inertia in trying to tackle the problem."

Cleaveland believes it is possible to eliminate rabies in the dog population globally. The goal is to achieve zero human deaths from dog rabies by 2030 – a target adopted as an objective by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This is a joint declaration by the WHO alongside the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control.

"We know from the research that dog populations are much more accessible to vaccination than we had previously thought," explains Cleaveland. "There is a widespread misperception that there are so many stray and free-roaming dogs in the world that we will never deal with this problem.

"What we understand from the work in Africa is that the vast majority of dogs, even though they are not confined and perhaps wandering around a village, are actually owned. There is someone that will have responsibility and critically who can bring the dog for vaccination.

"Even in parts of Asia where there is generally more of what you might call 'street dogs', those tend to be taken care of by people in the community and are also accessible.

"What has been shown now over the past 20 years is that everywhere in the world, when you try in a concerted way to vaccinate, you can reach enough dogs to eliminate rabies."

Cleaveland was born in Malaysia and grew up in a rural farming community in Somerset. "We had ponies, dogs, cats, chickens and ducks, so I was always very comfortable and enjoyed being around animals," she says. "I also loved exploration and wanted to be a journalist for National Geographic."

She describes herself as a sports-mad youngster who was often outdoors. "I played netball, tennis and lacrosse. When I was at university I did a lot of rowing."

Cleaveland represented Cambridge University – where she trained to be a vet – in the 1985 Women's Boat Race. "Although we didn't win, we had a wonderful crew and I made some fantastic friendships," she recalls. "The training was intensive – we did about five hours a day."

There were occasions when rowing won out over academic life. "I have memories of weekends where I was fishing horse's legs out of the formalin tank for dissection to try and catch-up on my anatomy," she says, sheepishly.

The signposts to her future career path were arguably always there. "It is interesting because when I went back through my university notes and even some of my childhood books, I noticed that rabies was a recurring theme at various points in my life.

"One was the story of Old Yeller and I can still remember how traumatised I was by this dog dying of rabies. I had thumbed the book so often – I would have been around eight or nine – that it just fell open at that story.

"I do wonder whether the seeds were planted then. There are various stories I've read over the years and it was always the ones about rabies that lodged in my memory."

Her partner is Swiss-born Professor Markus Borner, a conservation biologist and former director of the Africa programme in the Frankfurt Zoological Society, who has an honorary professorship at Glasgow University.

The couple have been together for "many decades" after meeting at the Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute in the 90s and still regularly return to work from the brilliantly nicknamed "disease house".

"There is the lion house, cheetah house, bio-diversity house – all these glamorous houses – and we have the disease house," she chuckles fondly.

Balfron-based Cleaveland became a Fellow of the Royal Society in April. She looks bashful when the topic is raised. "It is overwhelming and something I never imagined because it represents the pinnacle of a career in research for most scientists," she admits.

"I've been extremely fortunate in the people I've worked with and these things are never the reflection of a single person – it is always a team. I feel some discomfort about the fact that the award is given to an individual because it is the result of a huge amount of teamwork."

Cleaveland hopes to use it as a platform to raise better awareness not only of rabies, but a wider group of what she describes as "neglected diseases" in Africa, including brucellosis, leptospirosis, sleeping sickness and Q-fever.

"There was a study carried out in Tanzania that has triggered a whole programme of research," she says. "It found that malaria was actually the cause of less than two per cent of human cases of fever.

"These zoonotic diseases – the ones spread from animals to people – actually cause about a third. They are a substantial problem but are very poorly recognised even by medical professionals and hard to diagnose. Mostly they can be treated if you get the diagnosis."

One of her biggest frustrations is the tunnel vision that often exists on a global scale. "The world is dominated by health scares but it seems like we can only deal with one at time," she says. "When you actually look at the numbers it is really salutary.

"Something like 12,000 people died from Ebola. It was a devastating epidemic and a huge global concern. With rabies, it is estimated that 59,000 people die every year. No one seems to know or talk about it. To me, that's a problem.

"Obviously we need to deal with Ebola, but I find it frustrating that we don't seem to be able to manage to deal with more than one health concern at a time internationally."

Cleaveland has her own theory on the reasons. "The sad reality why no one cares about the 59,000 people who die from rabies each year – that's one person every 10 minutes – is because it is mostly poor people in disadvantaged communities and it is not going to kill us.

"We will invest in things that we are scared about, but the reality is that Ebola isn't going to kill us either. It is a lot about the perception of the risk. I'm not saying don't invest in Ebola, but we also need to look at some of these facts objectively.

"The frustration is that no one should die of rabies. That's where my impatience comes in."


Career high: Seeing the global elimination of canine rabies become a declared objective of the World Health Organisation, World Animal Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN.
Career low: Battling fatigue and depression when writing up my PhD which took quite a toll and was only belatedly recognized as being caused by schistosomiasis (bilharzia). Thankfully recovery was very rapid after treatment.
Favourite film: Lincoln.
Last book read: Wolf Border by Sarah Hall.
Best trait: Worrying too much.
Worst trait: Worrying too much.
Best advice received: To stop worrying about things I can't change.
Biggest influence: Professor Dan Haydon, director of the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at Glasgow University. He leads by example as a person of the highest intellect and integrity, able to draw out the best from those around him.
Favourite meal: Sushi.
Favourite holiday destination: It is hard to beat Scotland on a fine day, but among East Africa's many spectacular wildlife areas is Mafia Island in Tanzania with its spectacular coral reefs and marine biodiversity.
Favourite music: Anything by Mozart.
Ideal dinner guests: Melinda Gates, Wangari Maathai, Lyse Doucet, Florence Baker (nee von Sass), Dorothy Hodgkin and John Boyd Orr.