Initiative to make Karachi rabies-free launched

Updated October 05, 2019

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Dr Naseem Salahuddin, the Rabies Free Karachi project director and senior infectious disease expert, speaks at the event organised at the Indus Hospital on Friday.—White Star
Dr Naseem Salahuddin, the Rabies Free Karachi project director and senior infectious disease expert, speaks at the event organised at the Indus Hospital on Friday.—White Star

KARACHI: It was sad to see the absence of government officials at an event organised on Friday at the Indus Hospital (IH) for the launch of an important project aimed at freeing Karachi from rabies. The infectious viral disease has emerged as a major health challenge in recent years in Sindh mainly due to the acute shortage of anti-rabies vaccine and worsening insanitary conditions, a leading factor contributing to the increase of stray dog population.

The Rabies Free Karachi (RFK) project was launched in collaboration with Getz Pharma.

According to experts, at least 14 people, all brought from the interior areas of the province to hospitals in Karachi, have died of rabies this year. Karachi alone reports around 150 cases of dog bite.

Around 5,000 people die every year in Pakistan because of rabies

“The human loss, however, could be much higher as the disease is often not reported as families turn to faith healers,” said Dr Naseem Salahuddin, senior infectious disease expert at IH, during a press conference.

She also shared her clinical experiences of handling patients bitten by rabid dogs and said these lives could have been saved if the victims were appropriately and in a timely manner administered with anti-rabies vaccine.

Dogs, she pointed out, were the main source of human rabies deaths, contributing up to 99 per cent of all rabies transmission to humans.

‘An orphaned disease’

Dr Naseem, also the RFK project director, described rabies as a neglected, orphaned disease, which could never come on the government’s priority list, though it was estimated to cause 5,000 deaths in the country and around 160,000 cases of dog bite occurred every year.

Sharing how the hospital decided to tackle this issue in Karachi, she said it set up a rabies prevention centre in 2008 where dog-bite victims were treated free of cost round-the-clock.

Sharp increase in cases

The reporting of dog-bite cases at the hospital had seen a sharp increase and jumped from 1,789 in 2012 to 5,640 in 2018.

Narrating the 2016 mass culling of dogs by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) which caused a media outrage, she said the IH team, moved by this cruel methodology, decided to implement “one-health approach” through a pilot project in Ibrahim Hyderi.

“The WHO’s recommended one-health approach seeks elimination of rabies universally by 2030 with the help of mass dog vaccination and controlling [their] population through birth control measures,” she said, adding that killing of stray dogs was both cruel and ineffective as studies had shown.

Mass vaccination

Under the RFK project, which has been extended to parts of Landhi, Korangi and recently to DHA and the areas in the jurisdiction of the Cantonment Board Clifton after being successfully implemented in Ibrahim Hyderi, around 25,000 dogs have been vaccinated so far against rabies and 2,500 animals have been neutered/spayed.

“Now, we plan to scale it up to the whole city with this strategic partnership. This initiative would help reduce rabies cases in both humans and animals and control dog population, which would help eliminate rabies.

“The vision is to take this approach to the whole country but for that government support and resources are needed,” she said.

Commending the hospital’s efforts, singer-turned-social activist Shehzad Roy said that the health and education sector couldn’t be improved without state assistance and the RFK needed government support.

“This project is critical since we know that 40 per cent of the dog-bite victims are children,” he said, adding that it’s very much doable as other countries had proved.

IH CEO Dr Abdul Bari Khan recalled how he got inspiration and took up public health welfare initiatives as a Dow Medial College student and later as a cardiac expert and the head of IH.

He also highlighted progress of the hospital.

Describing the project as a great initiative, actor Sheharyar Munawar said that it would help change a society where humans weren’t cared for.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2019