Eliminating a zoonotic disease from an exotic paradise: Mission Rabies Sri Lanka 2018

Post by

emily king

September 7th 2018

Our Programmes Intern Clara has recently led this year’s rabies mission in Sri Lanka, working alongside international volunteers and local organisation Dogstar Foundation to eliminate rabies!

Sri Lanka is an extremely colourful island offering a lot to tourists who want to explore the country. Unfortunately, rabies still is an endemic problem here and since 2015 Mission Rabies have continuously worked on annual vaccination drives to eliminate rabies from this exotic paradise.

Once again Mission Rabies collaborated with Dogstar Foundation to run another door-to-door vaccination campaign on the western shores of Sri Lanka. The selected area for this year’s campaign, Wennuppuwa, was new to all team members and the collected data throughout the campaign revealed interesting dog population and dog ownership information from the area.

Wennappuwa district was chosen as the working area after the local government approached Dogstar Foundation earlier in the year, asking for guidance and support in setting up and running a vaccination campaign in the area.

The government organized static point vaccinations earlier in the summer, thus Mission Rabies focused on a door to door approach to ensure sufficient vaccination coverage in line with the WHO recommendations which was not achieved by the static points alone.

A very diverse group of five international volunteers joined the mission and it was a privilege to work alongside them. We had vets, a vet student and non-vets on the teams. Each one of them contributed their skillsets to the hard work in the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, ensuring dogs were vaccinated, owners educated and data collected.

After their arrival on the first weekend we gave them time to settle in, enjoy the lagoon where the accommodation is situated and gave them a full briefing and introduction to the work for the next two weeks. Sitting down in the evening to fold leaflets which were distributed to the dog owners on rabies, rabies prevention and animal welfare gave our small group the chance to get to know each other before the first working day.

Walking through the different zones and areas of the district, our teams got to see different housing types, both urban and rural living standards of Wennappuwa and all of them unfortunately had to witness the low standards of animal welfare in some of the areas. Our team leaders put a lot of energy into conversing with dog owners about proper dog handling and animal welfare. Their dedication and drive throughout the two weeks left our volunteers very impressed and shows how we can strive to eliminate rabies by working together.  

The photographs of the dogs and puppies collected throughout those two weeks were amazing, and much of this promotion is due to the dedication of our volunteers in spreading the word about Mission Rabies with their friends back home. So many of the dogs we saw were, despite their owners’ fears of dogs, absolutely adorable and had just way too much energy to spare. If asked, each volunteer will have their own favourite story to tell about a dog they have seen during the project I’m sure!!

Mine is related to a young male dog of a local breed. He was around 12 months old and in a good condition. Unfortunately his owners did not know how to handle him and so, kept the dog locked up in a small wooden kennel and chained to a tree next to the kennel. The owner was not willing to hold the dog so we gave the dog a chance and took him out the cage. He was friendly, playful and just wanted to run around. He had so much energy he could not stop moving. When he had received his rabies vaccination I took him for a run in the garden. I was heartbroken when the owner asked me to put him back into the cage and tie him up to the tree again.

While the animal welfare standards are not the best, the owners’ hospitality was often too generous. More than once we got offered fresh coconuts or papayas from their garden, cold drinks, tea or cake.

After the first couple of days our volunteers had learned how to ask in Sinhalese whether a dog is at the house (‘balo innawada?’) and how to advertise free rabies vaccines (‘nomileh jalabhithika ennatha’). This helped our local team leaders who announce the presence of the vaccination teams and the free vaccines with their loudspeakers.

During the weekend the volunteers got the chance to relax and explore the island a bit further. Most of them joined a trip up to the area of Sigiriya where we climbed Sigiriya rock, visited a spa and slept up in treehouses in a little forest; a truly magical experience!

With renewed energy, the volunteers made the second week as much a success as the first one. We worked in beautiful areas, alongside a lake and next to the beach. Some of our teams even got invited to a buffet breakfast at one of the local hotels. Hearing them gush at lunch about the delicious croissants and cappuccinos they got to enjoy surely made everyone else quite jealous.

Considering that only three teams worked their way through the district, the teams achieved outstanding results, covering 18 zones in 10 working days and therefore vaccinating an incredible 1,335 dogs and 200 cats.

Throughout the 10 working days of the campaign, Dogstar Foundation set up their spay and neuter clinic as static points in Wennappuwa adding a dog population management component to the project by sterilising 458 dogs. Vaccinations were also delivered at the clinic creating a total number of 2,051 vaccinated dogs during our time here.

To celebrate this great achievement, on our last night we took our volunteers together with the local staff members out for a final dinner. It was a great way to end those two weeks with everyone who had committed a lot of energy and determination into this campaign!! Another successful drive in Sri Lanka and one step closer to making this island rabies-free!