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Anti-rabies project launched in Karachi

January 13, 2018

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South African expert Daniel Stewart speaks at the launch of Rabies Free Karachi project on Friday.
South African expert Daniel Stewart speaks at the launch of Rabies Free Karachi project on Friday.

KARACHI: Rabies Free Karachi (RFK) — a pilot project aimed at vaccinating stray dogs on a large scale, controlling their population and creating public awareness on dog behaviour and rabies — was launched on Friday in Ibrahim Hyderi, one of the towns worst hit by cases of dog bite.

A ceremony in this regard was held at the Indus Hospital (IH), which is collaborating with the World Health Organisation and the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) for the project.

Speaking about how serious the problem of dog bites and rabies is, Dr Naseem Salahuddin, RFK project director and head of infectious diseases department at the hospital, presented some data indicating that 91 people had lost their lives to rabies between 2009 and 2016.

“These stats are of two hospitals only — the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (56) and the Indus Hospital (35).

We haven’t counted deaths that might have occurred at other city hospitals. We estimate that around 150 cases of dog bites occur in the city daily,” she said, adding that cases of dog bites at IH had risen from 1,789 in 2012 to 5,500 in 2017.

‘Stray dogs will be caught by trained personnel, vaccinated and sterilised at a facility’

According to her, there were at least seven incidents in different parts of the city last year in which a single dog bit many people. The total number of victims involved in these cases was 82 whereas the highest number of such cases (23) was reported from Korangi and Landhi.

Most victims, she pointed out, were children.

On rabies and its prevention, she said that rabies transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal, usually a dog, was 100 per cent fatal but also 100 per cent preventable if the right steps were taken at the right time. These included thorough washing of the wound with soap and water and administration of vaccine and rabies immune globulin, depending on the wound’s severity.

“The incubation of rabies in humans varies from few days to few months, depending upon the closeness of the bite to the central nervous system, viral load and the virus strain,” she explained.

The disease symptoms included feeling feverish, headache, episodes of mental confusion followed by the inability to swallow and breathe. “There is no going back once symptoms start. Only heavy sedation and comfort care can be offered. Death is inevitable.”

Citing example of Sri Lanka that has been able to reduce incidence of human rabies and effectively control population of stray dogs, she said the country was a good example to tackle this challenge in a way which took care of both human and animal welfare.

“One health approach is important because six out of 10 infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals,” she observed, while regretting the present methodology in Pakistan of killing stray dogs as a solution to prevent incidence of dog bite.

The RFK project

Under the project, stray dogs will be caught by trained personnel, vaccinated and sterilised at a facility set-up in Ibrahim Hyderi. “The community is very much on board. Educating people on co-existence between humans and animals is also part of the project and we are going to teach children that animals deserve respect, too,” she explained, while appreciating the efforts of the RFK team.

Daniel Stewart, a senior animal behaviorist from South Africa who would train personnel on catching and handling of dogs, said the issue was overwhelming given the fact that it involved human as well as animal suffering.

“Mass culling is not only inhumane but counterproductive, ineffective and a waste of time and resources,” he said, adding that heaps of rubbish had an important role in increasing dog population, and that vaccinating 70pc of dog population eradicated rabies in an endemic area.

Dr Saira Salman, head of WHO sub-office Sindh, extended full cooperation on part of her organisation to the team and said that the challenge was difficult but achievable given the commitment and dedication of the team.

Mayor Karachi Waseem Akhtar said that shortage of funds had clipped KMC’s capacity to properly perform its functions that had aggravated civic issues in the city.

“However, I believe the city would benefit from the project being supported by three institutions,” he said, while seeking media support in creating public awareness on what to do in case of a dog bite and rabies.

Dr Naila Baig, chair IH research centre concluded the session followed by a visit to the RFK facility.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2018