The threat of Rabies
Maxwell Pereira

For the dog lover in me, it is not unusual to be torn between my dogs and the park – on one side the urge to walk with my dogs… on the other, to walk in the park without them! For most parks now have introduced the ban on dog walking within, which means when walking dogs one has to forfeit the pleasure of the park – the ambience of its manicured nature and the habit forming walking-tracks inside, and resign oneself to walk the dogs elsewhere!

But then what bugs me more is to encounter stray dogs within the park when my own well-behaved companions-on-leash have to be left behind with the domestic help to walk them somewhere else. And worse, in the season when bitches are on heat, suffer the packs of males chasing each other across your path inside the park banned for dogs, fighting and growling till the majority scamper away injured and howling, while the victorious that over-powered the rest mounts gloriously – much to the curiosity of children in the park, and embarrassment to ladies in serious yogic stances or focussed determination to shed that extra flab through their morning constitutional.

And then in indignation I ask: Why can’t the authorities do something about the stray dog population? Where are all those dogcatchers? ….the dog-pounds? Isn’t the local self-government/ municipality responsible to curb this menace? I discussed this matter with my neighbour Maj Genl (retd) Dr RM Kharb, the celebrated army veterinarian, who is also the Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India.

Genl Kharb was sympathetic, agreeing entirely with my line of thought; but told me the problem was more complex than mere apathy on the part of authorities concerned who neglected this important civic duty. He went on to educate me, starting first from the end result, shocking me no end with the fact that stray dogs are responsible for over 90% of rabies deaths in India which loses 30,000 human lives annually to rabies.

A most dreaded and communicable fatal disease that afflicts animals, rabies is more prevalent in dogs than in other mammals. That bites from rabid dogs are responsible for approximately 96% of human rabies cases, of which only 11% are from home bred rabid pet dogs, and with the exception of a little over 5% due to foxes and jackals, monkeys, mongoose and cats, the rest 84% attributed entirely to stray dogs who also infect cows and horses. Of an estimated 27 million dog population in India with a dog:human ratio at 1:40 – majority of them are stray, unowned and unprotected, that thrive in a community, some even fed by people; most having their own home-range but moving out of range during mating season – their strength ever on the increase due to prolific breeding.

Animal bites in India are estimated at 17 million a year, affecting mostly children. With growing awareness on animal welfare, gone are the days of shooting stray dogs or using other cruel means like ‘culling’ them Chinese style to control proliferation. And yet there is urgent need to prevent stray dog population from growing or breeding further.

India has failed miserably in controlling stray dog population. Rabies control programmes are low priority, with no organized program or adequate laboratory diagnostic facilities. Despite an estimated 1.4 million people receiving post-exposure treatment for rabies annually, there is no education on management of dog bites. Surveys indicate about 60% of the community associate rabies only with dog bite, and just about 30% know about vaccination; not more than one third, about washing of wound with soap and water.

Rabies is a disease caused by virus in the saliva of infected animals, transmitted to humans and pets by bites or contamination of open cuts. The virus infects the central nervous system, causing encephalopathy and ultimately death. Early symptoms in humans are non-specific, consisting of fever, headache, and general malaise. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hyper-salivation, difficulty in swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurring within days of the onset of symptoms.

The Animal Welfare Board of India, Dr. Kharb says, provides grant-in-aid to various Animal Welfare Organizations to run Animal Birth Control programmes for stray dogs. It is essential, he says, to destroy the virus in the canine population if one were to control and eradicate rabies. This, he feels, is possible through intensive mass vaccination of dogs with safe and effective vaccines which are highly immunogenic. It is necessary to target and immunize entire canine populations (pets and strays) to establish herd immunity, to contain and finally destroy the rabies virus in dogs.

An effective and economical tool to combat the threat, the good General says, is through oral immunization of stray/ community dogs by a bait delivery system in addition to parental vaccination of reachable pets. The Animal Welfare Board has on the anvil the most humane solution to the problem – a plan to eradicate rabies in the country through the SAG2DOG Oral Rabies Vaccine developed by the French multinational Virbac in collaboration with WHO and OIE – which can easily be fed to stray dogs too. It hopes to implement this with the involvement of the community, government agencies, animal lovers, NGOs and RWAs.

But till that happens, “does the community have to suffer stray dogs and run the risk of exposing ourselves to rabies?” I ask the authorities.

29.08.2006: Copyright © Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// and TOP

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