A total of 10,886 dog bite cases were treated at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi in 2019—and cases have been going up every single year since 2011, according to the hospital’s data.
News reports about dog bites and the shortage of rabies vaccinations for bite victims have also been on the rise, adding to the general sense of fear, apathy and even hatred towards stray dogs in the country.
The problem, Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) co-founder Mahera Omar believes, may not lie with the dogs but rather with people and our collective failure to co-exist with other living beings.
“We have to rethink our relationship with dogs,” said Omar. “We have separated ourselves from nature and other living beings in our urban settings. Dogs are used in villages all over Pakistan as guard dogs, shepherd dogs and even as pets and companions. Only in the major cities of the country do we distrust them this way.”
Children are taught from a very young age to mistreat dogs, causing the dogs to retaliate. “Dogs are bothered by children all the time,” she said. “Dogs shouldn’t be thought of as a hindrance. They are used even in cities as sniffer dogs to detect bombs and drugs, for example. We need to get comfortable with the idea of living alongside a safe and vaccinated dog population.”
The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation recently started putting down stray dogs, a piece of news greeted more with delight than with horror. “Killing dogs doesn’t work,” said Omar, however. “The only way to counter dog bites and rabies is through vaccination.”
Indus Hospital Rabies-Free Pakistan initiative
Indus Hospital in Karachi is working on a Rabies-Free Pakistan project that is part of the WHO’s initiative to eliminate rabies in the world by 2030.
“We still have 10 years,” said project head Dr Naseem Salahuddin wryly. “Rabies has been controlled or eliminated in many countries but we are just getting started here in Pakistan. We began this project in 2018 in Ibrahim Hyderi and have expanded to other parts of the city. We aim to cover the entire province slowly.”
Dr Naseem revealed her team was donated 50,000 vaccines by the WHO in 2018. “We distributed some to other parts of the country and then used some for the pilot project in Ibrahim Hyderi. We now procure our own vaccines that are produced locally.”
The strays that are vaccinated by Dr Naseem’s team are given a glow-in-the-dark luminescent collar so that people know they are safe, vaccinated and rabies-free dogs.
“We have been doing this for two years now and vaccinate 50 to 70 dogs daily,” she said. “From Ibrahim Hyderi, we have covered Korangi, Landhi, Lyari, Jamshed Town and Akhtar Colony to name a few areas. We also began working in DHA late last year.”
Dr Naseem’s team spays and neuters dogs in order to counter their population growth as well. “We spay the female dogs and neuter the male ones but haven’t been doing so for the past 10 or so days since it is cold these days. But once the weather improves, we will start again,” she added.
The Sindh government began its ‘Fight against Rabies and Population Control of Stray Dogs’ campaign in November last year in the Central and West District Municipal Corporations (DMC) but only a total of 115 dogs were vaccinated: 15 in Central and 100 in West.
DMC Central Chairman Rehan Hashmi said the provincial government has no concrete plan to fight rabies. “The Sindh government has been unable to provide vaccinations for human infants, so how can they be expected to vaccinate dogs in Sindh or in Karachi?” asked Hashmi.
Sindh Local Government Secretary Roshan Ali Shaikh and deputy
commissioners of District West and District Central, Fayyaz Solangi and Farhan
Ghani, were all unavailable for comment.
Both Dr Naseem and Omar criticized the government for failing to tackle the issue properly. “When we started work in Ibrahim Hyderi, we were told by government officials that the area is too garbage-ridden for us to be able to get anything done there,” said Dr Naseem.
Omar pointed out that the garbage in the city means dogs will always find food. “Politicians and bureaucrats pour water over a lot of good initiatives in Pakistan because they value their opinions more than scientific facts,” said Omar. “Dogs are scavengers and this is a solid waste management issue.”
Naseem argues that this
is an issue that the National Institute of Health in Islamabad should be
Omar added that the government should declare rabies a national health issue and make it a notifiable disease so that people know the extent of the problem. Local governments also need to get on board.
‘Vaccination only way forward’
“Everyone who has done any research or has studied dog biology and dog population will tell you that the only way to prevent rabies is through vaccination,” said Omar. “Killing dogs like the authorities have done in Pakistan in the past does not work.”
Dogs are territorial animals and killing them in one area means another group from somewhere else will replace them. The disease will continue to spread if root causes such as poor solid waste management, a lack of awareness and unvaccinated strays are not tackled.
“If 70% of an area’s dog population gets vaccinated then rabies cannot spread,” said Omar. “We don’t need to kill all the dogs in an area to fix the problem, we just need to vaccinate 70% of them. The Global Alliance for Rabies Control clearly maps out how we can get rid of the disease.”
The neutering process not only helps control the population but also makes the dogs much more docile. “Neutering a dog removes all its aggressive behavior so they are safer to be around,” said Dr Naseem.
CBC join Indus Hospital
The Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) has joined hands with The Indus Hospital and so far 720 male dogs and 322 female have been vaccinated in the CBC area from October 17 last year.
“After the administration of the vaccines, the staff is putting two forms of identifications on vaccinated dogs,” said CBC anti-rabies campaign supervisor Wazir Muhammad. “The first is to put a collar around their neck and the second is to mark their ear slightly, in case the collar is removed or slips off, so that the dogs are easily recognizable and people don’t fear them.”
Most of the CBC has already been covered. “Seventy percent of the areas in the CBC have been covered during the anti-rabies campaign and we hope to cover it completely in the coming months,” added CBC CEO Rana Kashif Shahzad.