by Merritt Clifton
NILGIRIS, Tamil Nadu, India––Vaccinating 60,000 dogs in 30 days at 10 rabies hot spots around India, Mission Rabies exceeded its preliminary target by 10,000 and kept right on rolling, vaccinating another 30,000 and sterilizing more than 9,000 during the next five months.
Mission Rabies “will continue for three years, with a goal of vaccinating two million Indian dogs,” said Worldwide Veterinary Services founder Luke Gamble, who set for himself the goal of eradicating rabies in India while visiting Nilgiris as the star of a veterinary television show in 2009.
WVS is handling the Mission Rabies veterinary component, funded by Dogs Trust of the United Kingdom, with logistic support from the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations, the Animal Birth Control progams of the Animal Welfare Board of India, and Blue Cross of India.
Gamble credits longtime Blue Cross of India chief executive Chinny Krishna with facilitating the alliances that enabled the successful Mission Rabies debut.
“Fifty thousand rabies vaccinations were donated by Merck, Sharp & Dohme to kick off the project,” acknowledged WVS in a project summary sent to media.
After exhausting the donated vaccine stock, Mission Rabies began purchasing the same single-year Merck vaccines through the India National Rabies Network, WVS said. WVS formed the India National Rabies Network in 2010, a year after partnering with the India Project for Animals & Nature in Nilgiris to found the WVS International Training Centre for veterinary surgeons.
To maintain the “cold chain” necessary to ensure that the vaccines are effective in the Indian tropical climate, Mission Rabies is working from a custom-built truck that WVS founder Luke Gamble calls the most advanced mobile surgical clinic ever built. The truck includes on-board generators and a variety of computer equipment used to track the locations where dogs are netted, vaccinated, and released or returned to their caretakers.
Revaccination will be done by “a mass vaccination campaign every September hereafter, to coincide with World Rabies Day,” Gamble pledged.
“India remains the world’s hotspot for the disease with over a third of all deaths reported to occur here. Mission Rabies is going to change that,” Gamble asserted. “The truck continues to travel around India, running surgical training courses and teaching vets the skills required to run neutering and vaccine campaigns,” building on the work already done. As the project develops, it will include more training of Indian vets in spay/neuter, and increasingly will involve sterilization, as well as vaccination. Part of the focus of the initial vaccinating program is to establish the trust of people who understandably are concerned when their dogs are picked up by strange-looking fellows in orange shirts. People’s trust that the dogs will not be hurt and will be returned promptly to the same spot is essential for Animal Birth Control programs to work effectively, with public cooperation. So the vaccination program will pave the way for an ABC component to follow.
“I hope this project will pave the way for an initiative we can roll out globally,” Gamble told me. “It has been an epic to get to this point,” Gamble said, “ but the hope is we will show we mean business, and that we really do have a workable and achievable solution to wiping out rabies––without wiping out dogs!”
Summarized a WVS media release, “The launch phase of Mission Rabies involved nearly 500 volunteers from 43 organizations and 14 nations.”
Local animal charities and veterinarians “conducted focused community street dog vaccination campaigns,” with vaccination targets “determined to ensure a 70% coverage in each ward they covered.”
Mission Rabies worked in Coimbatore, Erode, Madurai, Chennai, Nagpur, Trivandrum, Goa, Tirupati, Bhubaneshwar, Bikaner, Calcutta, Ranchi, and Guwahati––the major cities in almost every part of India.
The Mission Rabies approach follows the prescription offered by Argentinian medical doctor Oscar Larghi, who in the 1980s eradicated canine rabies in several of the biggest cities in South America through inexpensive three-month dog vaccination drives.
Reported Larghi to the members of the International Society for Infectious Diseases in May 1998, “Control of rabies in developing countries can be very successful if based on appropriate planning, health education of human populations, 70% vaccine coverage of dog populations, and epidemiological surveillance. These parameters, with little emphasis in dog population reduction (less than 10% of the estimated population), were applied in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, Argentina (10.5 million inhabitants), Lima-Callao, Peru (6.5 million inhabitants), and Sao Paulo, Brazil (14 million inhabitants). Dog rabies cases were reduced to zero, from close to 5,000 cases per year in Buenos Aires, 1,000 in Lima, and 1,200 in Sao Paulo.”
In each city, the rabies control teams impounded and euthanized only dogs who appeared to be already rabid, aggressive, or otherwise severely unhealthy.
In 2012 I reinforced the 2007 conclusion that targeted vaccination could relatively quickly eradicate canine rabies from India with a series of articles demonstrating that the commonly made claim that India has 20,000 human rabies deaths per year is inflated a hundredfold, and can be traced back to preliminary studies done by William F. Harvey in 1911, when post-exposure rabies vaccination was first being introduced to India. Data collected by M.K. Sudarshan for the World Health Organization in 2003, and annually since then by the Indian Central Bureau of Health Intelligence, indicates that India actually has an average of about 235 human rabies deaths per year.
“Once the exaggerated numbers are thrown out,” I recommended to the Alliance for Rabies Control, “and the associated notion that rabies is endemic at all times and in all places throughout India, then targeted vaccination of street dogs should be able to eradicate rabies as effectively there as has already been accomplished here in the U.S.,” where canine rabies last occurred––other than in animals brought from abroad––more than 15 years ago.
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