January 2012

Rabies – More Than Just Angry Dogs

Rabies has the reputation of being the most comical of animal diseases. The word conjures up images of dogs foaming at the mouth and Gregory Peck shooting the rabid dog in the eye in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. But there is more to be concerned about with rabies than just a lonely dog barking to itself at the end of your neighbourhood’s main street...

By: Yukiko Nakata
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Tokyo - Japan


Photo: Melle Boss

A 7 year old girl died of rabies in Cochabamba this October. She was bitten by her own puppy and neither her nor her mother had any idea about rabies so did could not get any medical treatment until the virus had spread to her nervous system. Such unfortunate cases are preventable by animal vaccination programs, but, in Bolivia, there are still many cases of dog rabies. This stands in unfortunate contrast to many other Latin American nations which have succeeded in eliminating the disease. According to the Pan American Health Organization, Bolivia and Haiti have the highest number of rabies cases in Latin America. What is rabies? Why are there still so many rabies cases in Bolivia? What can be done to prevent the spread of this debilitating disease? These are just some of the questions that have arisen out of October’s tragic incident.

Sadly, Cochabamba has one of the highest instances of rabies of any city in Bolivia.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Rabies is a disease that causes inflammation of the brain in warmblooded animals. It is most commonly by a bite from an infected animal. The WHO says 99%of human infection is from dogs, and more than 55,000 people die of rabies in the world every year. After a human is bitten by an infected dog, the incubation period is usually 1-3 months, and once the disease takes hold, the sufferers can exhibit symptoms ranging from hyperactivity, excited behaviour, hydrophobia and aerophobia. The death rate after the incubation period in humans is a frightening 100%.

So how can we prevent rabies? Vaccination for dogs or people is the most effective way, but even after being bitten by an infected dog, if the person receives immediate medical treatment, he or she can prevent the onset of symptoms and death. The girl who died on the 9th of October could have survived if she had been given right treatment.

People buy or adopt dogs because, basically they want to own and spend precious time with dogs... but once they forget their initial feelings, they may abandon their dogs, which then become wandering street dogs.

The website, Passport Health says at least 130 cases and at least 5 deaths from rabies have been reported this year in Bolivia. Also, according to FM Bolivia TV, in the first half of 2011, the department of Santa Cruz reported the largest number of rabies cases in Bolivia. They were followed by Cochabamba, Sucre, La Paz, Beni, Potosi, and Tarija. Sadly, Cochabamba has one of the highest instances of rabies of any city in Bolivia. What can we do to eliminate rabies from Cochabamba and Bolivia? Here are two examples that succeeded in eliminating or reducing the fear of rabies.


Street dogs
Photo: Aidan Jones

In Japan, they succeeded in eliminating rabies, however, in the past, the disease was a serious problem. As you can see from the graph below, after World War 2 many people died of rabies. After 1950 however, the number of cases decreased dramatically and since 1957, there have been no cases except for those originating from imported dogs. How did they achieve such positive results? One of the reasons is the law requiring dog owners get their dogs vaccinated every year, or face a fine of around $5,000US as punishment. Another regulation obliges owners to use a leash to control their dogs, or they too have to pay a penalty.

These regulations have helped eliminate infected dogs by making sure that dogs with owners are vaccinated and are required to stay within the control of their owners. There is also one other extremely important reason; there are no street dogs in Japan because, when street dogs are found, the health centre takes them and keeps them for some days. If nobody shows up to claim the dog, the organization kills the dog in a cruel way – suffocation. The success of Japan has a hidden situation. Whilst the situation in Japan is good in terms of the eradication of rabies, improvement could still be made in their treatment of stray dogs. You may think that the Japanese case is a little bit different from Bolivia from the point of economy or geography.

There is still a long way to go though; according to Sarcobamba Health Care Centre, one of the problems is that they vaccine only owned dogs, not the street dogs that most people are bitten by... does this mean we should kill all the dogs on the street in Cochabamba?

Let’s consider a case a little closer to Bolivia: Peru, for example has had great success in reducing canine rabies cases. How did they achieve this? There were many cases in Peru at the beginning of 1980’s. As the second graph shows, when, in 1985, a big vaccination campaign was launched, the number of cases decreased dramatically. A mass vaccination campaign is one of the most effective ways to eliminate rabies. Moreover, the Peruvian government enacted a law in 2001 that imposed leashes and muzzles on dogs in public areas and also aimed to educate the population about zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans). Plus, the municipalities in Lima are in charge of registration and identification of dogs to control animals owned by people. It is difficult to make these kinds of laws in Bolivia immediately, but we can learn something from the steps other countries have taken.


Photo: Rocio Triveño

Of course, in Bolivia, people are trying to eliminate rabies. There is a centre that is tackling the problem with the aim of eliminating rabies cases in Bolivia called Sarcobamba Health Care Center; here both dogs and humans can be vaccinated. There is still a long way to go though; according to Sarcobamba Health Care Center, one of the problems is that they vaccine only owned dogs, not the street dogs that most people are bitten by – this is why Japan is killing many street dogs. Does this mean we should kill all the dogs on the street in Cochabamba? The other problem is that even though there is an organization that is trying to vaccinate all owned dogs, there is a limit to what they can do. Sometimes people do not open their doors to the organization’s vaccination visits, plus, it is hard to be controlled only by the organization because someone might start to own dogs just after the organization finished vaccination for the area. Do you think owners should have the sole responsibility to take their dogs to get vaccinated? If owners take their dogs by themselves, it can create a greater sense of responsibility for the owner. In Japan, vaccinations usually cost around 40 US dollars, here in Cochabamba though, we can get them for free! As the case of the young girl’s death shows, lack of knowledge can be a big problem. Although the organization in Cochabamba has held a seminar about the spread of rabies, most people have shown little interest.

We have to think about what we can do to live with dogs peacefully. People buy or adopt dogs because, basically they want to own and spend precious time with dogs, but even one individual owner’s lack of responsibility or information can cause big problems, such as rabies. Once they forget their initial feelings, they may abandon their dogs, which then become wandering street dogs. This is what brings about sad states of affairs such as Japan’s where many street dogs must be killed to prevent the spread of disease. Do you think this situation is right, as a human, even if it is saving human lives? There are many ways that we can contribute to reduce or eliminate the tragedy that is rabies.

La Cancha -
Beneat h the Surface.

didn’t get mugged in La Cancha, in fact I didn’t have any trouble whatsoever with the thugs that apparently roam the streets day and night. I didn´t get sick from the food – well actually I didn’t try any of the food... for fear of getting sick, as I have been so carefully warned may happen. After my first visit; seeing the children of store owners playing amongst their parents’ shops and living day to day in a world where the rest of Cochabamba’s population only makes a brief, weekly visit – I knew there was more to La Cancha than meets the eye.

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