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We should all be rabies ambassadors to eradicate killer disease

Veterinary officers receive dogs during a free vaccination and sterilization campaign in Kibra. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

September 28 is World Rabies day. It is set aside to create awareness on rabies, a deadly viral zoonotic disease mainly spread to man through bites of infected dogs. 

Rabies is preventable and a clear candidate for elimination as there exists an effective and affordable rabies vaccine for humans and dogs.

Why rabies has not been eliminated is among the reasons this day is marked to reawaken us all to the fact that this disease despite being preventable, still claims thousands of lives annually, most of which occur in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Rabies causes over 59,000 human deaths worldwide every year with 95 per cent of these cases occurring in Africa and Asia.

It is estimated that one person dies of rabies every 10 minutes. Rural populations, especially children aged below 15 years are at the greatest risk of rabies exposure.

The cost associated with post-exposure prophylaxis in humans is high and exceeds the cost of rabies control in animals through dog vaccinations.

This year the day is marked under the theme – Rabies: Facts, not fears. The theme brings to the fore human reasons that have stifled to a great extent the battle to eradicate rabies, especially in the developing worlds. 

Rabies is an “old” disease that has been researched extensively with a lot of literature documented. Ironically the disease is largely unknown and many still shroud it in a lot of myths, the reason why a lot of resources have been invested in creating awareness on this deadly disease.

Dehumanising disease

Rabies is a dehumanising disease; it has clinical signs that are scary to the public and tormenting to the patient.

Because rabies affects the central nervous system, its clinical signs include fear of water, abnormal vocalisation, excessive salivation, difficulty in swallowing, hallucination, and lack of sleep.

These signs are in most cases wrongly attributed to witchcraft subsequently delaying medical attention in hospitals.

This risky behaviour driven by misinformation instils fear and hopelessness and should be countered by the public getting that fact about rabies so as prevent rather than treat.

A number of countries, especially in the West have managed to eliminate rabies. This was purely through dog vaccination, disease surveillance, and strict monitoring at ports of entry.

Kenya is working towards joining this league of nations that have eliminated dog-mediated human rabies. Kenya has already drawn a roadmap towards the elimination of dog-mediated human rabies by 2030.

The plan is based on the “at source” control approach. Kenya plans to achieve this through mass vaccination of dogs, control of dog population, and promotion of responsible dog ownership.

Mass vaccination of dogs

Rabies being a zoonotic disease, the Director of Veterinary Services (DVS) is working together with the Ministry of Health under the One Health approach.

Kenya has a Zoonotic Disease Unit; probably the only one in the region that coordinates the surveillance, control, prevention, and elimination of diseases transmitted across humans and animals.

The DVS has identified counties that are at the highest risk of rabies infections and has already instituted rabies prevention measures especially dog vaccination and awareness creation.

These counties include: Kisumu, Siaya, Kakamega, Machakos, Kitui, Bomet and Makueni.

Cumulatively the DVS has dispatched over 800,000 doses of rabies vaccines to this and other high-risk counties.

In addition to mass dog vaccinations, the DVS closely collaborates with the MoH to enhance capacity for detection and response to rabies outbreaks through training of human and animal health frontline workers and enhancing surveillance and diagnostic capacity at the county level.

Despite the provision of free rabies vaccinations for dogs, the coverage in most areas is still not optimal.

It is therefore our individual responsibility to be advocates of rabies vaccination in our neighbourhoods by ensuring that every dog is vaccinated and we take care of our dogs by feeding and housing them to avoid the number of stray dogs roaming our communities.

This is the cheapest and easiest way of eliminating rabies. Lastly, all victims of dog bites should immediately wash dog bites with running water and soap for at least 15 minutes and seek health care.

As we mark this year’s world rabies day let’s all remember that 99 per cent of human rabies cases are transmitted by domestic dogs and we should all be rabies ambassadors by complementing the government’s efforts towards archiving rabies elimination

This year’s World Rabies celebrations were held in Kilifi County. As part of the celebration, the Government vaccinated dogs against rabies at Sabaki Ward in Kilifi County and created awareness of the disease. 

-Dr. Obadiah N. Njagi, PhD, OGW is the Director of Veterinary Services and Kenya’s official Delegate to the World Organisation for Animal Health - OIE

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