Over 160,000 dog bite cases are reported in Pakistan yearly
Every time a case of rabies is reported, civil society is up in arms about culling all stray dogs. People believe that by eliminating wild dogs, the disease itself will vanish. But that’s not true. Dogs are just one vector of the disease, which culling campaigns haven’t managed to get rid of so far.
“The dog population hasn’t gone down. Mass culling has only hardened the public and made them angrier,” said Dr Naseem Salahuddin, the director of infectious diseases and head of the Karachi Rabies-Free programme at Indus Hospital.
Mass culling only temporarily reduces the number of dogs in an area, she explained.
Dogs have a gestation period of nine weeks, after which a new litter of 10 to 20 pups will be born, she said, adding that they would be at risk of contracting the virus.
Instead, Dr Salauddin, who is also a member of the advisory panel of WHO for rabies, explained that the world over, countries had eliminated rabies by focusing on scientific interventions, such as the One Health Approach.
This is a programme the Indus Hospital has been implementing and hope to scale up with a strategic partnership with Getz Pharma.
The One Health Approach is a method of combining mass-scale rabies vaccination, animal birth control and community awareness to eradicate rabies by 2030. It is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Getz Pharma CEO and Managing Director Khalid Mahmood, who is also extremely fond of animals, explained how the public-private initiative would work.
“We’ll fund epidemiological studies based on scientific evidence. We will provide financial assistance and take full responsibility of marketing,” he said.
The programme will take place in three phases and the costs are being worked out, Syed Mashood Rizvi, the executive director of communications and resource development at the Indus Hospital, informed the audience at the partnership’s launching ceremony on Friday.
He added that their aim was to eliminate rabies in Karachi over the course of two years and then move on to eradicating the disease across Pakistan.
Why is rabies so widespread in the country?
There are an estimated 160,000 dog bite cases in the country every year. Around 5,000 people die annually of rabies, said Dr Salahuddin.
“The tragedy is that it is 100% preventable,” said the infectious disease expert. “I call it an orphaned disease. There’s no surveillance and reporting and a total lack of community awareness,” she said.
She added that people are completely clueless about what to do after being bit by a dog. Some put chilli and powder onto their wounds, which allows the virus to spread in the body, while others either go to faith healers or shrines for treatment.
Doctors and paramedics have poor knowledge of how to treat rabies, Dr Salauddin lamented. Compounding the issue of dog bites is the dwindling supplies of anti-rabies vaccines and immunoglobulin and an absence of a policy on the control of stray dogs, she said.
What was the pilot project that inspired this programme?
The Rabies-free Karachi initiative was started by the Indus Hospital at a small fishing village of Ibrahim Hyderi in 2018. Locals, who were vaccinated against rabies, were trained to catch and vaccinate stray dogs. The vaccines were provided free of ccharge by the WHO.
Student vets from Tando Jam, under the guidance of professional vets, performed surgical sterilisation, Dr Salauddin explained. The community was then taught to be gentle with stray animals.
More than 25,000 stray dogs were vaccinated and sprayed for identification, while around 2,500 were neutered. This resulted in much fewer puppies being born and no rabies cases reported from the area.