Facts, not fear

On World Rabies Day, the global community aims to combat misconceptions associated with the disease to prevent unnecessary culling of animals

Facts, not fear

For centuries, dogs have been kept in homes as pets. However, these mammals can carry the rabies virus. According to WHO, rabies is a serious zoonotic virus-related disease transmitted to humans through contact (mainly bites and scratches) with diseased animals, both domestic and wild, including dogs, cats, monkeys, foxes, bats, raccoons, and skunks. This virus attacks the brain, causing severe inflammation and death. More than 95 percent of human rabies cases have been reported in Africa and Asia. Nearly 99 percent of which are caused by dog bites. Almost half of the victims are children below 15 years of age. Rabies is estimated to cause 60,000 human deaths annually.

World Rabies Day is being observed on September 28 every year, to create awareness about rabies prevention. This date was chosen as it is the death anniversary of Louis Pasteur – the first person to successfully create a vaccine against rabies.

This year the theme is Rabies: Facts, not Fear. Facts are essential for raising disease awareness, preventing future cases, and animal vaccination. It is crucial to work with facts because they allow us to understand the severity of the issue and ensure that decision-makers take policy action in the long run.

On the other hand, fear relates to the general anxiety caused by rabies, which people may experience when infected, often caused by fake news or myths about the disease, preventing people from getting themselves and their animals vaccinated.

Symptoms of rabies disease include neurological problems and a fear of light and water. Headache, anxiety, general unwellness, sore throat, cough, nausea and vomiting are vital signs of virus invasion. Discomfort may occur at the site of the bite. Lab tests can show antibodies, but these may not appear until later in the development of the disease. By the time diagnosis is confirmed, it may be too late to take action. Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease. Every year, more than 15 million people in the world receive post-bite vaccination against rabies.

Rabies is a neglected disease in Pakistan, although the incidence of dog bites in the country is very high. In 2010, more than 97,000 cases of dog bites were reported by basic health units alone. It is estimated that 2,000 to 5,000 people die of rabies every year. Poor political support, a weak collaboration between different government departments and sectors, and ignorance of the local government can deeply impact the numbers.

However, in collaboration with provincial health authorities, World Health Organisation (WHO) is working to develop dog bite treatment centres in Pakistan to strengthen post-exposure prophylaxis. In rabies control, plans are being developed to involve other sectors, such as livestock authorities and veterinary research centres. In addition to that, mass awareness on rabies transmission, prevention and self-protection, the establishment of rabies treatment centres at each district headquarter hospital, ensuring the availability of cost-effective anti-rabies vaccines in designated centres in all districts are also under focus.

Pakistan shares space among those South Asian countries where dog-bite cases and the resulting fatalities, mainly among children, seem a never-ending tragedy. With approximately 300,000 cases of dog bites per year, Pakistan has yet not decided on a unified strategy to combat the deadly disease.

Rabies caused by dog bites is a serious concern for each province. Sindh has had to deal with the worst in this case. In Sindh, over 150,000 dog-bite cases have been reported in the year 2021 till date. Punjab registered 19,000 cases in 2019. And Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has had 14,000 registered dog-bite cases in the first four months of this year alone. The exact population of stray dogs in the country is also not known. However, as per official sources, the total number of stray dogs in Punjab stood at around 470,000 in 2019.

According to a report published by the International Organisation for Animal Protection (OIPA), more than 50,000 dogs die every year on the streets of Pakistan. The mass killings and poisoning of stray dogs in all cities of the country can create environmental problems.

The WHO and other relevant international institutions have rejected the idea of culling stray dogs to prevent rabies. Instead, they stress, countries control rabies by managing dog populations and sterilising them. According to the WHO, these steps are not only environmentally friendly but also cost-effective.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) believes that the government should opt for one-time culling of stray dogs, but it cannot be a permanent strategy. The government must put in place a system to vaccinate and neuter stray dogs, as practised worldwide.

With the worsening rabies situation in the country, experts suggest that all provinces adopt a unified strategy to counter the deadly virus-caused disease. An adequate supply of anti-rabies vaccines in all clinics, sterilisation of stray dogs and creating awareness regarding post-exposure treatment among the public are some steps local governments must take to prevent future cases.

Recently, the Sindh Health Minister supported the idea of culling dogs. Director-General Health Sindh proposed, “to avoid dog attacks on little children; the government must kill them. How can you value the life of a stray dog over an innocent child?”

The Punjab government has decided to sterilise stray dogs across the province to reduce their population growth under orders from Lahore High Court post-petition. The government will also vaccinate these dogs and cats against rabies and has decided to launch an awareness campaign to seek help from organisations working towards animal welfare.

The Livestock and Dairy Development Department will provide vaccination services, and District Veterinary Hospitals will be responsible for sterilising the animals in Punjab. The Punjab Government has further decided that animal killings and cruelty are punishable, with perpetrators getting a PKR 50,000 fine and possibly imprisoned for three months.

A committee at the national level should be constituted to formulate an effective and unanimous action plan. Mass awareness on the protection and vaccination of pets is an essential step towards disease prevention.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Facts, not fear