By Andy Gibson, Epidemiology and Research Manager at Mission Rabies.
It was a privilege to represent Mission Rabies at the Second Global Partners Meeting on NTDs, held at the WHO in Geneva last week. The meeting brought together the major global players to discuss elimination efforts for the ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases’; a list of 17 diseases which affect the lives of people living in poverty in some of the world’s poorest communities.
The Neglected Tropical Diseases list makes for grim reading. Diseases such as LF, which causes extreme disfigurement known as elephantitis, river blindness which causes a host of disabling symptoms making it impossible for the victim to work, leprosy which leads to a loss of sensation in the skin. And of course rabies, which we as a charity we know too well.
How does anyone decide which one should be prioritised for elimination? This is the dilemma facing the WHO, the global guide in driving how money is spent, what activities should be prioritised and how communities should behave to improve health. This made me question why then should rabies be a priority amongst these other awful diseases?
For me, it was the way rabies impacts on communities through traumatising and painful bites from rabid animals. This combined with the economic burden on the state to provide prophylactic treatment and as well the harrowing stories of families who have lost a loved one to the disease - which is untreatable once, symptoms begin – stories I kept hearing over again and again. This was why I wanted to get involved in rabies control.
As a vet I never before had the opportunity to make such an impact on people’s lives through disease prevention in animals. But as I learnt more about the broader picture of rabies, my motivation became more pragmatic and measured.
Rabies transmission is chillingly simple but so is the solution. It can easily be interrupted through mass dog vaccinations. Furthermore elimination has been successfully demonstrated across continents already and rabies elimination has even been shown to make economic sense. The role of Mission Rabies is to demonstrate that it is possible to implement WHO’s recommendations for rabies elimination in some of the worst affected areas and to share the lessons learnt on the ground with others.
The meeting also made me question what role we should play, as an NGO, in contributing to the control and elimination of rabies. There are many stakeholders involved including the communities affected, local and national governments of the respective countries, global partners and donors, academics and advisory groups – why are NGOs of any use in all this?
Mission Rabies brings a sense of dynamism and drive to the elimination effort; we are a fast moving group with a dedicated team on the ground, innovating new approaches to overcome the challenges faced in implementing control measures. Bringing together the support of Dogs Trust, MSD Animal Health and WVS as well as our close relationship with the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh places the emphasis on questioning existing approaches while monitoring the effect of ongoing efforts.
Our challenge going forward, as emphasised from the meeting, was in focusing on ways of achieving greater impact, benefitting more people in more ways with the resources available.