DESPITE being a preventable disease, rabies claims the lives of an alarming 60,000 people each year, according to a recent report from the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC).
The World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that a staggering 40 per cent of people, bitten by suspect rabid animals, are children under 15.
WHO states that dogs are the main cause of human rabies deaths, contributing up to 99 per cent of all rabies transmissions to humans.
Rabies is an infectious viral disease that is almost always fatal following the onset of clinical symptoms.
It is present on all continents, except Antarctica, with 95 per cent of human deaths occurring in the Asian and African regions.
Sarawak has not been spared the deadly disease. An outbreak was detected in Serian District last year after three children, two of them siblings, were found positive for rabies virus following laboratory tests.
For the record, rabies has claimed eight lives in Sarawak thus far. The latest victim, an 11-year-old boy from Kampung Sebangkoi Baru, Simunjan District, was confirmed to have died from the disease on May 3 this year.
State Department of Veterinary Services acting director Dr Adrian Susin Ambud has reminded pet owners to ensure dogs are vaccinated to prevent infection.
He noted there were also positive samples for rabies virus from pet dogs.
“Those pets were actually roaming pets, not confined to the house compound. They might have been infected when bitten by other strays. Thus, it’s imperative for dog owners to get their pets vaccinated and not assume their canines are free from rabies,” Dr Adrian told thesundaypost in Kuching recently.
He pointed out that action could be taken against owners for not getting their dogs vaccinated, especially those in infected areas.
“Under Section 40 (of the Veterinary Public Health Ordinance 1999), it’s an offence if dog owners do not get their pets vaccinated against rabies,” he stressed.
Dr Adrian said apart from mass anti-rabies vaccination programmes, other strategies include managing strays, controlling populations through neutering, and continuous public awareness campaigns.
He said the control programme, implemented by the state government, has been very effective in curbing the spread of rabies.
“We have managed to control the disease, reduce the number of bite cases, and there are no more new cases. That shows how importance vaccination is.”
Emphasising the importance of continuous awareness, he said, “This means the public need to take precautionary steps to avoid being bitten by dogs. And if bitten, they must seek immediate medical attention – get vaccinated.”
On licensing of pet dogs, he said this is one way to fight rabies and believes the local councils are looking into this matter.
Dr Adrian admitted stray dogs pose a big challenge, saying if they are not spayed or neutered, their population would multiply.
“New puppies would need to be vaccinated. If there is a group of dogs in a particular area, their immunity will be reduced.
“For example, we have already carried out anti-rabies vaccinations for 70 to 80 per cent of the dog population in an area. After one year, the pack’s immunity will drop if the dog population keeps increasing. And after three months, the puppies may get infected as well,” he explained.
Dr Adrian said samples collected are presently sent to the Veterinary Research Institute (VRI) in Ipoh, Perak, although samples are also sent to Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).
“It’s better to have our own lab. Hopefully this year, we can get our own set up – it’s in progress,” he noted.
Assistant Minister of Housing and Public Health Dr Annuar Rapaee said there have been no cases of rabies in the Sibu region so far.
Dr Annuar, who heads the Sibu Rabies Control Committee, told a press conference on April 20 that 7,248 dogs had been vaccinated in Sibu region (including Kanowit, Stapang and Selangau) since the free mass anti-rabies vaccination programme started on Jan 20.
He added that 1,264 stray dogs had been removed from the streets.
Dr Annuar said two approaches had been implemented in Sibu whereby centres were set up for dog owners to bring their pets for vaccination and mobile teams sent to the outskirts, covering all longhouses.
He also voiced concern that the number of dog bites reported in Sibu was below “satisfactory level” due to cases going unreported.
“This means people bitten by dogs have not gone to hospital for treatment. We are very worried about this trend.”
Dr Annuar stressed it is vital for those bitten by dogs, even their own pets, to get treatment.
He added that stray and roaming dogs posed a higher risk of causing rabies.
Sibu Rural District Council (SRDC) deputy chairman Robert Lau said pet dogs would also be rounded up if found roaming outside house compounds.
“Free roaming dogs, with or without vaccination tags, risk being rounded up by council staff,” added Lau, who is assisting the Sibu Rabies Control Working Committee.
Symptoms of rabies
According to WHO, the incubation period for rabies is typically one to three months but may vary from one week to one year, depending on factors such as the location of virus entry and viral load.
Initial symptoms include fever with pain and unusual or unexplained tingling, pricking or burning sensation (paraesthesia) at the wound site.
As the virus spreads to the central nervous system, progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord develops.
Those with furious rabies exhibit signs of hyperactivity, excitable behaviour, hydrophobia (fear of water), and sometimes aerophobia (fear of drafts or of fresh air). Death occurs after a few days due to cardiorespiratory arrest.
Paralytic rabies accounts for about 30 per cent of the total number of human cases. This form is less dramatic and usually takes a longer course. Muscles gradually become paralysed, starting at the site of the bite or scratch. A coma slowly develops, and eventually death occurs. The paralytic form is often misdiagnosed, contributing to underreporting of the disease.
These consist of the following:
> Ensure pets are licensed with the local council.
> Ensure pets remain within the house compound and are leashed when brought outside.
> Dispose of leftover meals in covered rubbish bins to prevent strays from scavenging for food waste.
> Ensure pets undergo yearly anti-rabies vaccination.
> Pets should be neutered to curb overpopulation.
> Prevent children from disturbing or playing with stray animals.
> Report immediately to Sarawak Operations Room (082-443991) if you encounter any animals that show symptoms of rabies – excessive drooling, increased aggression, fear of water, sunlight and wind and change in behaviour.