Field Report - Rabid dogs and saving lives in Blantyre

Post by
Frederic Lohr
April 22nd 2015

WVS International Veterinary Manager and Mission Rabies field officer Dr Dagmar Mayer has been in Malawi for more than a month now, conducting dog population surveys that build the foundation of our work there for the duration of the project and setting everything up for the start of our massive dog vaccination drive that starts on April 30th. Her experiences there show once again how important the upcoming Mission Rabies project is and what difference Mission Rabies and WVS will be making in the city of Blantyre!

I have been in Malawi for more than 4 weeks and it’s been such a busy month!

I have been rushing around from one office to the next, getting permissions, buying supplies and putting everything into place for the mass vaccination project with Mission Rabies in May. We have also recruited over thirty local helpers and government para-vets, counted dogs all over the city, sterilised and treated dogs. I have also made some good friends over here!

We had more updates from the family I wrote about in my last blog where we had to put two rabid puppies to sleep last time: the mother of the puppies is doing well, as the rabies vaccination she had last year saved her life. But the dogs bit three children from this family. They were rushed to the District Health Office for their third rabies vaccination last week, only to find out that they don’t have any vaccines in stock. To be completely safe from developing the disease after a bite of a rabid dog, five injections of the life saving post exposure vaccine must be administered as soon as possible.

I knew that both their dogs had tested positive for rabies, so I decided to provide them with vaccines. The previous day we had all our local staff, who will be participating in the Mission Rabies programme vaccinated so thankfully we still had three vaccines in our fridge. I quickly handed these over to a befriended nurse from the Queens Hospital who quickly gave the children the medicine. It felt terrible knowing that these lovely children might have died if we hadn’t been able to help!

During the dog survey I have been conducting for the past two weeks, I have managed to talk to lots of Malawians who tell me about similar stories: family and friends who get bitten by rabid dogs. And though they are aware of the lethal risks associated with the disease, even when they go to the hospital there might not even be any vaccines, and people are dying as a result.

The dog survey is now finished. It was tough getting up at 5am every morning, walking miles and miles, climbing hills, being either cold and wet or sweating in the sun. But I really enjoyed seeing how most Malawians live. Sometimes we had to walk into their backyards and I kept having the feeling I’m actually walking into their houses.

Most of the people in the poorer communities have neither kitchens nor bathrooms. People cook their meals on a fireplace behind the house. Countless times I walked past people who were just brushing their teeth when I walked past. When I explained to them that I was counting dogs they quite understandably looked at me with puzzled looks. When I explained to them what WVS and Mission Rabies were planning, they told me how grateful they were and helped to point out houses where I could find dogs.

I found that the majority of the dogs in the communities lived very close to their owners and I could see that they were treated very well. I’m not sure that the dogs were very good guard dogs. They were mostly asleep in the mornings, barely noticing me as I walked past, with their eyes fast asleep, snoozing and enjoying the warm African sunshine.

Three days ago our friend, Golden Maruwo, a veterinary technician from the Government Veterinary Lab informed us about another suspected rabid dog in one of the more affluent areas of Blantyre city. As we reached the place, the heavens opened and the rain started to pour down on us again, which seems to happen as soon as we get a call (I’m starting to suspect something!).

The owner of the free roaming dog told us that roughly 10 days ago she heard noises of dogs fighting in the street and for the last 3 days her dog was acting in a weird way. She told us that she hardly recognized him anymore and he had been hiding for the last 24 hours. As we we went looking for the dog, wading through streams of muddy water and the torrential rain we eventually found him lying on the porch. He looked very sick and weak, unable to even get up, drooling with his jaw dropped; his small pupils were in a fixed cold stare. He was in the final paralytic stage of rabies.

Defence, a very experienced animal handler from the Blantyre SPCA, looped the noose of a catchpole over his head and made sure it was safe for me to inject the sedation. Once he was deeply sedated, I put him down so he didn’t need to suffer any longer.

I find it such a shame that the dominating image of rabid dogs is something from a horror movie: snarling, aggressive creatures and beasts, foaming from the mouth, ready to pounce and bite your throat. In reality these dogs are very sick animals, victims of an ancient and vicious virus, designed to make sure it’s spread via the saliva first, before killing the host. Which is scarier than any film. When I see these dogs I feel grateful that I am in the position to do the only thing I can do to help: end the suffering and make sure the animal can pass away, quickly in a painless and humane way."

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