In 1952, a middle-aged doctor in what was then Madras was buying cigarettes from a roadside shop when a rabid dog bit him. The animal’s eyes were blood red, and it was salivating profusely. The doctor knew that the animal was infected. He immediately rushed to his hospital and began a course of 14 anti-rabies shots. Yet, he died in three months.
Obviously, the vaccine must have lost its efficacy. Maybe, there was a break in the cold chain, for vaccines have to be stored at a certain temperature for them to remain effective.
In 1982, another doctor, in his early forties in what was then Calcutta, also died of rabies, bitten by his own pet dog. He too had taken anti-rabies medication. Maybe, here again the vaccine would not have worked. And the animal must have contracted the infection on the street during one of its walks.
These are just two cases of rabies in India — where the picture remains as grim today as it was in the 1950s and the 1980s. Year after year, a whopping 20,000 men, women and children die of rabies in the country — which is a third of the global fatalities of 59,000.
Once rabies sets in, it cannot be cured. And it is a horrible death. But rabies is 100 per cent preventable — that is if the vaccine has been stored well and its efficacy is 100 per cent.
Also, many of those bitten by a rabid dog tend not to go through the entire course of medication. They skip injections or give up the treatment midway.
A recent study by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control states: “Rabies is caused by a virus that is transmitted to humans through the infected saliva of a range of animals. But most human deaths follow a bite by, or exposure to, an infected dog.
“Expert say the rabies control programme in India is aggravated due to the general lack of awareness of preventive measures, insufficient dog vaccination, an uncontrolled canine population, poor knowledge of proper post-exposure prophylaxis and an irregular supply of anti-rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin, particularly in primary-health-care facilities.
“Also, only 70 percent of the people in India have ever heard of rabies, only 30 percent know how to wash the wounds after animal bites and, of those who get bitten, only 60 percent receive a modern cell-culture-derived vaccine”
All these make rabies a deadly threat especially in a country where there are 30 million stray dogs wandering the streets in cities, towns and villages — living off food found in garbage bins or thrown carelessly on roads.
Another impediment to effective rabies control is a group of people who describe themselves as animal lovers, and raise a hue and cry every time the civic authorities go on a stray-dog drive. In some ways, these people can be seen as friends of animals, but foes of the common man.
A few weeks ago, a Tamil actor, Vishal, went on a hunger strike decrying the manner in which street dogs were being caught and killed in Kerala. The western Indian state had decided to clean up the place of strays, which were proving to be a menace to the population.
Admittedly, the way the civic administration goes about tackling canine threat is not always proper. The animals are caught with huge tongs or in nets and electrocuted without first knocking them unconscious. The deaths are terrible to watch, and I have seen how dogs struggle and suffer.
So the Blue Cross in Chennai (once Madras) came up with a comprehensive plan called Animal Birth Control (ABC) in the mid-1990s that involved spaying and vaccinating strays before releasing them in the same areas from where they were rounded up.
S. Chinny Krishna of the Blue Cross says the number of deaths due to rabies in Chennai has declined from 120 in 1996 to five in 2004. In Jaipur (state of Rajasthan), where the Blue Cross worked as well, the deaths came down from 10 in 1996 to two in 2000.
But the number of street dogs did not decline, and the Blue Cross found out that each area had a “holding capacity” which was determined by the food available in garbage bins and that which was doled out by residents.
Worse, the civic managements in their over-zealousness continued to catch dogs and kill them — and often these were precisely those that had been neutered and vaccinated. In any case, putting dogs to sleep is no way to go about controlling their population or checking the spread of rabies, says Krishna.
In a 1990 report, Dr. K. Bogel, chief veterinarian, Public Health Unit of the World Health Organisation in Switzerland, wrote: “All too often, authorities confronted with the problems caused by these dogs have turned to mass destruction in the hope of finding a quick solution, only to discover that the destruction had to continue, year after year with no end in sight”.
Krishna added here: “Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. The age-old method of catch-and-kill has not worked and never will”.
Obviously, there is no magic cure for multiplying street dogs or checking rabies. However, this is not to belittle the fact that dogs on the loose must be dealt with. They can be neutered and vaccinated. Over a period of time, their population will decrease.
But as Krishna quipped, this is an area of expertise and cannot be handled by any non-government organisation (NGO). It is only a civic body that can be entrusted with the problem of unwanted dogs — and, a direct fallout of this, rabies.
But more importantly, why cannot all those animals lovers — and they include even the poorer sections of society which seem to view strays as some kind of security guards — adopt dogs from the streets and take care of them, so that they do not turn rabid.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.
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