Transmitted by animal bites that attack the nervous system, the rabies virus causes over 50,000 deaths worldwide each year, mainly in poor countries, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
A team of researchers at Sun Yat-Sen University's School of Public Health in Guangzhou, Guangdong led by Jia-Hai Lu reviewed data from more than 22,000 infections in China between January 1990 and July 2007.
Their findings, published in the Britain-based journal BioMed Central Infectious Diseases, show that rabies cases increased from a low of 159 in 1996 to 3,279 in 2006.
The report did not say how many of these were fatal.
Most patients were children and teenagers, and contracted the disease after being bitten -- usually in the head or neck -- by a dog, the study found.
The highest density of cases occurred in southwestern and southern China, especially in highly populated areas.
The four provinces most affected "lack strictly enforced measures to eliminate dog rabies or an ample supply of modern cell culture vaccines for humans," noted Lu.
Worst-hit was Guangdong province, where 62.5 percent of patients did not receive proper treatment for their wounds, 92.5 percent did not get needed vaccinations, and more than 90 percent failed to receive any anti-rabies antibodies.
"In China, human rabies was largely under control in the period 1990-1996, owing to nationwide rabies vaccination programmes," Lu said in a statement. "The recent increase in incidence has been high enough to trigger a warning sign for control and prevention."
He called for a mass campaign to carry out the mandatory vaccination of dogs.