Eradicating rabies

September 28, 2019

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THE tragic death of a young boy in Larkana and of a woman in Karachi highlights the gravity of the situation arising from the shortage of the anti polio vaccine. The boy’s final moments recorded on video as he lay breathing his last breath in his mother’s arms led to the public outcry. The death was entirely preventable, because when the family took the child to the hospital, only to be told that the rabies vaccination was in short supply in the province, and that nothing could be done.

Later, the Sindh government issued a directive addressed to town authorities, local mayors and municipal commissioners to carry out mass culling of stray dogs in the province. Dog culling campaigns are not new in Pakistan, they have been used repeatedly for decades to get rid of dogs for reasons ranging from rabies prevention to as a response to complaints from residents in the locality who view stray dogs as a nuisance.

In the city of Karachi alone, there have been instances of authorities having culled more than a thousand dogs in a single day. Despite these mass culling measures, the population of stray dogs in Sindh seems to be on the rise by all accounts. It is apparent that the Sindh government considers a bloodthirsty campaign aimed at avenging the death of rabies victims an effective solution to the problem.

However, when going down the route of mass culling of dogs as a measure to placate the masses, it is important to recognize that dog culling is not only ineffective at preventing the spread of rabies, it is indeed detrimental to the cause.

Studies have shown that the best approach to rabies elimination is to effectively vaccinate 70pc of the dog population, a move that would lead to development of herd immunity. Vaccination needs to be coupled with sterilization, so that dogs do not keep giving birth to more unvaccinated dogs who will need to be captured and vaccinated again.

It is also important to note that dog culling may itself be a public health issue, as dogs in Pakistan are often either shot or poisoned. Dog poison as well as failure to effectively clean up dog carcasses could lead to spread of disease, and people’s pet dogs have been known to accidentally consume poisoned meat meant for strays.

Dog culling is also expensive and requires resources for an indefinite period of time. On the other hand, mass vaccination and sterilization may require substantial investment in the beginning, but might be less costly in the long-term.

Hira Jaleel

Karachi

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2019