Reflecting on a Successful Rabies Campaign in Blantyre, Malawi

Post by

amy lewis

May 29th 2018

The last few weeks have seen our Programmes and Research Intern Amy jet off to help run our Blantyre vaccination campaign, before heading off to Thailand to begin some rabies research and pilot project there. We caught up with her to find out how the team got on in this year’s Blantyre drive…

I flew out to Malawi at the end of April and managed to get one day of catching up with the team out there before the madness began. I was even greeted with a tiny rescue cat who fell asleep in my arms - she is called Peyton and has just found a forever home.

Blantyre is the 2nd largest city in Malawi and home to about 35,000 dogs - all of which we aimed to vaccinate over our vaccination campaign in the city. The team run a treatment and sterilisation point at the BSPCA in central Blantyre. They have some brilliant facilities, most of which have been donated or fundraised for. As a result, they have some full-time vets and some volunteer part-time vets who can do many surgeries from standard neutering and lump removals to fracture repair, organ removal and enucleations. Whilst I was there, one even performed a skin graft. The BSPCA was our hub and we would meet all the local staff and vehicles there for a morning briefing at 6.30am every day. 

All of our work is research based and so this year, we are trialling a new vaccination method based on published research from our team last year. For the initial three years in Blantyre, we conducted our vaccination campaigns using a mixed approach. On the weekends we would run static point clinics and in some areas, we could get up to 1,500 dogs brought to us in a single day at a single static point!

We would then follow this up by walking door to door which would have two purposes: collecting data on the locations of the dogs which were brought to us and bringing up the vaccination coverage by vaccinating dogs which weren't brought to the clinics and gathering data on why these dogs were not brought. 

So, based on the data above we concluded that owners will walk about 500-1000m to a static point. Therefore, we significantly increased our static point numbers especially in high density areas and really stepped up the advertising through the work of the education and sensitisation officers. We made a song in Chichewa (Malawi's native language) and got it on the radio; we got a contract with TNM, the mobile advertising agency and they sent texts to everyone's mobiles about the static points and it really helped push the campaign!

As a team leader for the drive I looked after our international volunteers and also acted as the vaccinator in the teams. This year's cohort was small, but I got on with them really well and so it didn't feel like work for the most part. There was one Brit, who I had worked with before in Goa, one from the Czech Republic and 3 Americans - I loved their enthusiastic outlook on life and it’s great to share the Mission Rabies experience with volunteers who have the same passion for eliminating rabies and helping animals and communities as Mission Rabies do!

The first weekend was absolute madness as it always is, a real hive of activity! Following the first briefing by Dagmar, our Country Manager, we all jumped in cars and headed to the first static point. Our team was met by 100 people already waiting in the school grounds. There was a mad rush to start queuing up at the entrance to our make-shift static point. We fortunately had a classroom, so Isaac, one of our local drivers was able to act as a bouncer and keep everything calm and organised (for the most part).

That day our team vaccinated almost 800 dogs!! I had a blister on the inside of my little finger from pushing down the plunger so many times and my poor nurse volunteer, Joseph, spent the whole day drawing up vaccines! It was an incredible start to the campaign and really shows the difference we’re making there!

Sunday was slightly quieter for our team with only 450 dogs, but this gave us a chance to interact with the local community a bit more and, of course, cuddle the squidgy puppies! Cats are brought to us in hessian-style sacks, which, if they are lucky, previously held vegetables or the ground maize flour which is used to make Seema; if unlucky, is used to contain coal. I saw many a cat turned dark grey because of this. There is a trick to vaccinating the cats whilst still in the bag, making sure you have a firm grip because if they see daylight or even worse if they see the hundreds of dogs surrounding them, that is a recipe for disaster! It is one of the biggest adjustments to working in places like Blantyre, where animals do not have the same purpose or recognition as back home, so it takes some getting used to but educating about dog and cat ownership and animal welfare is part of what we do!

The weekdays took us up to Lake Malawi, the amazing 'Lake of Stars', having got its name due to the hundreds of night fishermen working with lamps on the water, making it look like there are stars in the water. The night sky itself is pretty spectacular as well; with minimal light pollution, you can see shooting stars and satellites for days. I need to remember to bring an equatorial star map next time, as I didn't recognise most of the constellations. Our accommodation was right on the lakefront so the sunsets were amazing, setting just behind one of the islands. Every morning the ladies of the village would come to the water to wash clothes and the dogs would follow them down whilst the day was still cool.

The reason we worked at the lake, the village of Cape Maclear to be specific, was because a few years ago a local woman died of rabies here. Ever since, there has been an annual outreach programme run by Mission Rabies and the BSPCA. This year however we scaled up the outreach project to a comprehensive rabies campaign. There was a brilliant reception from the local community and over two days of working, two teams vaccinated over 1,000 animals in Cape Maclear, Monkey Bay and Masaka which was an amazing result!


The following weekdays were great fun. We joined forces with the education teams and got to watch and help deliver the life-saving lessons about rabies, dog behaviour and bite treatment. This was part of the sensitisation efforts, letting the communities know where we would be vaccinating the following weekend. The level of engagement that our education officers get from the children that they teach was amazing to see. The lessons were around 25-30 minutes, and the officers were getting the children to participate in demonstrations of wound washing, engaging them with photos and getting them to indicate which animals can have rabies. Referring back to our research, one of our Malawi based staff conducted a study which found a great long-term retention of our rabies lessons in children of this age group, showing the impact these lessons can have in preventing bites and rabies cases.

Over the course of the next three days our group of international volunteers plus some local staff planned and painted rabies education murals on the walls of one school and we were very pleased with the final result!

Our mural work was followed by our final trip, this time to Majete National Park. We arrived at our accommodation on the Thursday and had a bit of a delay before we could get to our tents - there was an elephant on the path! Our accommodation was right next to a watering hole, so we spent hours watching the various baboons, buffalo, elephant, nyala, eland, zebra and my personal favourite, the warthog. We even saw some hyena that night. On our boat game drive, we came across a crocodile who had just made a fresh kill - I was rather happy to be in a boat as we watched them grab chunks of the poor impala and do a death roll to rip off bite-sized pieces. The hippos are also amazing - I can't believe that something that looks like a very overweight cow is the deadliest animal in Africa!

I was very sad to say goodbye to this particular group of volunteers; as we were a small group, we had time to properly get to know each other. After they left, I stayed to complete one final weekend of vaccinating. The Saturday was a massive day with two teams joining forces to vaccinate over 1,200 dogs!! Final numbers for dogs vaccinated will be published soon!

It’s been a fantastic campaign in Malawi this year but don’t forget, if you’d like to be part of a Mission Rabies project, take a look at our volunteering page and get involved!