In February, Kemba - a vet from the US- joined us as part of a team of 10 incredible volunteers on our first ever vaccination drive out in Ghana! Here she shares her experience of 2 weeks vaccinating the dogs of Bosomtwe district!
The closer my departure date got the more nervous, excited and curious I got. Baby wipes..check, mosquito repellent wipes and netting..check, Ghanaian visa..check. I went over and over my packing list and packed and repacked to be sure I had everything I needed. I needed my excited energy to carry me through four airports, four layovers and what seemed like endless flights to finally make it to Accra. I landed and made my way out of the airport to buy my local SIM card with three simultaneous thoughts: what am I doing? It sure is hot to be 11pm on a February evening, and I am so happy!
Our group of dynamic, eclectic women were FANTASTIC! We took a 6-hour bus ride on a vehicle to our destination of Bosomtwe. We all got up circa 5 am (thanks to a very dedicated rooster) to eat breakfast at 5:30 am and be in our vehicles by 6 am or so. Through our trip our singular goal was to complete the Mission. We worked hand in hand as veterinarians, veterinary students and veterinary nurses and pushed past jetlag and occasional power outages to start our first day at the basecamp.
On day 1 of the Mission, I thought this is why I went to vet school! From our basecamp, we assembled our days rations of informative brochures, ice packs, syringes, needles, vaccines, vaccine books, red livestock markers, lunches and waters. We would be paired with local drivers, veterinarians and Community Health Officers (CHOs) to ensure the best coverage of our individual maps. We were all a little bit type A personalities so the initial goal of 5,000 vaccinated dogs was what we were secretly hoping for!
Now to the kids, our secret weapons! Ghana is filled with beautiful rural communities, everybody knows everybody and its like a large extended family spread throughout multiple houses. The children always knew which houses owned dogs. They were gracious ambassadors for us and often accompanied us door to door. On our best days, the static point locations were preset and preannounced so the community met us there with their dogs. Sometimes 100âs of dogs would arrive being carried, via taxi, on makeshift chain leads or just dutifully following their owners on foot.
Dogs in Ghana fill unique roles. Some are pets and enjoy the tenderness of companionship with their owners. Most work in a transactional way with their owners on farms or in the bush. As children many are taught to fear dogs and as a result can handle them quite roughly, often picking them up by one forelimb. The dogs in turn can become defensive and even aggressive, sadly leading to a cycle of distrust between many owners and their dogs. Through interpreters and hand gestures we endeavoured to teach locals proper restraining techniques, demonstrating reassuring pats to show how dogs respond to positive reinforcement. We joyously celebrated every dog treated well with nods, smiles, thumbs up and thank yous (pronounced me-DAH-see) in the local dialect.
Folks in the villages had lots of questions about us. My driver was asked why we were there for dogs when so many people were suffering? I took my time to explain that rabies is a human, fatal disease prevented by vaccinating dogs. I said that we were here vaccinating dogs because of our concerns about the health of the people. A healthy, vaccinated dog population is the best protection for any community!
We were all a bit disappointed at the end of week 1 when weâd only vaccinated 1500 dogs as we hoped this would be closer to 2500 dogs. These numbers were based on the estimated total number of dogs in Ghana. During our first week, two people in neighboring Districts died from rabies, a young mother and a young boy. This deepened our resolve to keep going despite long days of walking in the heat. It was as if our silent collective agreed these deaths could not be in vain.
In week 2 our organised chaos became well-oiled machinery! With laughter and Festos (a local delicious shortbread cookie) we got more strategic and more effective. Our local partners got crash courses in map navigation and our static points were more organised. More people knew we were coming and that the vaccines really were free - no strings attached. And just like that on day 10 we had vaccinated over 4300 dogs and the Mission was in fact successfully completed. We organised our rations to be sent back to various locations, cleaned up our mess and at the end our basecamp showed no traces of our work.
Or so we thought. On our travel day from Bosomtwe back to Accra, we had to make two quick stops at our basecamp for last minute paperwork and then to a local orphanage to donate some of those items from our massive packing lists that we had never used! As we drove up there was a young boy with his dog on a chain lead. He was smiling so sweetly and waving, his mother and three siblings with him (see photo below!). Two of us got off at the basecamp and the larger group headed to the orphanage. In our vaccine room, there had been hundreds of vials of vaccines just hours before. We had packed everything and already supplies were being moved out so it was eerily empty now. Thankfully we found a few vials of vaccine and a syringe and completed our campaign. I kept thinking that the young mother in front of me could have very well been a seamstress like the woman who had died and the young boy who was holding the dog would have been close in age to the young boy who had died the week before.
That is how our inaugural Ghana Mission Rabies trip ended, with us having changed the outlook of rabies in the Bosomtwe district and with the District living on forever in our hearts alongside that one last young boy smiling and waving to us.