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KARACHI, Sept 28: The city government kills 72,000 to 75,000 stray dogs a year but does not invest in promoting or facilitating methods to neuter animals, which is a sustainable and humane method of controlling the stray dog population and reducing the threat of rabies. Of the 16 government-run veterinary centres in the city, none currently offer services for the sterilisation of dogs.

However, medical experts are of the view that the only effective long-term method of reducing the potentially fatal disease of rabies lies in controlling the dog population through vaccination and sterilisation. Every year, an estimated 50,000 people are bitten by stray dogs and rabies claims between 2,000 and 5,000 lives annually in Pakistan. An overwhelming number of cases – 96 per cent – involve a rabid dog.

“The mass killing of stray dogs is not the solution,” says Dr Naseem Salahuddin, head of the Infectious Diseases Department at the Liaquat National Hospital and a member of the World Health Organisation programme on rabies. “The solution lies in neutering dogs. This method has been successfully implemented in a number of Asian countries, including Thailand and India,” she tells Dawn. She believes that in terms of Pakistan, the hurdles lie in logistics rather than the cost of surgeries. “A programme to capture and neuter animals can be achieved through a public-private partnership, training technicians and establishing a proper setup,” she points out. “Since rabies is a zoonotic disease, close coordination between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture and animal husbandry would be required.” There are five government veterinary hospitals and 11 government veterinary dispensaries/centres in Karachi. None of them provide dog sterilisation services. In fact, with the exception of the Richmond Crawford Veterinary (RCV) Hospital on M.A. Jinnah Road, all the centres cater solely to livestock. Meanwhile, private vets demand high fees – Rs2,000 to Rs5,000 – to carry out the neutering procedure on male and female dogs.

The RCV Hospital, which is the city’s oldest veterinary hospital, is in the process of up-grading its facilities with the support of a US-based vet, Dr I. H. Kathio, who donated expensive necessities such as surgical lights and equipment, an anaesthesia machine, an electronic monitor, operating tables for different animals and set up an animal shelter on the premises. Nevertheless, the hospital does not carry out the neutering procedure. According to RCV Hospital in-charge Dr Qamaruddin Mangrio, this is because the veterinary centre lacks the required medicines.

Though a dog population control programme appears costly on the face of it, medical experts say that it will prove cost-effective in the long run. A reduction in the rabies’ virus reservoir would lead to a drop in the demand for expensive post-rabies-exposure treatment and would eventually see a decrease in rabies-related human fatalities.

The government is wasting resources on an ineffective and obsolete rabies vaccine (known as the sheep brain vaccine since it uses extracts from this organ) that is still being produced at the National Institute of Health — although it stated in 2005 that the production would be ended. A far better option is to invest in training manpower to carry out neutering procedures on stray dogs.