Every year, mostly in Africa and Asia, thousands of people die from rabies — the majority of the infections originating from dog bites. It’s not a pretty disease. Symptoms include fever, headache, seizures, delirium, hallucinations and aggressiveness.
The key to eliminating this deadly disease is vaccinating enough dogs to rein in the spread of the virus.
In partnership with Brief Media and the Clinician’s Brief, one charity based in Britain is tackling the problem in Blantyre in southern Malawi in Africa. Launched in 2015, the charity, Mission Rabies, vaccinated at least 30,000 dogs; an estimated 70 percent of the local dog population. This is the number needed for the disease to be eventually eradicated from the dog population — a concept called herd immunity.
And Mission Rabies has already seen success from its initiative to end human deaths from dog-transmitted rabies in other countries too, including India and Sri Lanka as well as Africa. On its website, the program recorded a total of 90,067 dogs have been vaccinated to date.
“Vaccinating dogs is really the only way to eliminate the problem," said Hernando County resident Linda Christian, and member of a team of 12 volunteers tackling rabies in Malawi, Africa.
Malawi is one of the world’s hotspots for rabies and Blantyre, the commercial capital in south Malawi, is where a single hospital reported the highest number of child rabies deaths anywhere in Africa.
In collaboration with the Blantyre SPCA and the charity Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS), Mission Rabies pairs international volunteers with veterinarians, educators, vet nurses and students to deliver the anti-rabies vaccines.
“The team I was selected to work with included British, Canadians, Americans and Nigerians,” said Christian. “We all met up at Blantyre Airport and were driven to mission headquarters to be briefed on the project.”
Blantyre is named after a small town in Scotland, where the explorer David Livingstone was born and it lies in a hilly area.
For four days in the week, the team would rise at 4 a.m., put on their backpacks loaded with vaccines and supplies and walk for miles in dusty, outlying areas identifying dogs and administering the vaccines. The team would prepare proof of vaccination certificates for owners and mark the dogs as vaccinated, usually a bright green mark on the top of the animal’s head. Other duties included conducting mark resight surveys and distributing educational material.
The remainder of the week, the team would assemble at “static” points, like a school for example, and the townsfolk would come with their dogs to be vaccinated.
“It was a chaotic and very loud with loudspeakers announcing that we were there and ready to treat their dogs,” said Christian. “And we didn’t only vaccinate dogs — we did a lot of cats too and several monkeys.”
Christian explained it can feel a bit chaotic because African dogs usually roam free. But most owners led them in on makeshift leashes or carried them in their arms.
“This was also a good time to educate everyone about the dangers of rabies and how to behave around dogs to prevent dog bites,” she said.
Few villagers turned down the chance for the free vaccinations and during the two-weeklong campaign, a total of 33,000 dogs were recorded as vaccinated.
Christian is no stranger to volunteering for animal projects all around the world. In the past few years, she has been to Peru to work with the endangered sloths, Cambodia to volunteer with the elephant project in Mondulkiri Province. Prior to that, she was in Indonesia to work with an orangutan project for the University of Java and then to the Galapagos archipelago working to protect the giant tortoises on San Cristobal.
It wasn’t all hard work though. One week of her 3 week stint in Africa included a stay at the famous Bua River Lodge.
Bua River Lodge is an owner-managed wilderness lodge situated in the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi. Guests are accommodated in six private safari tents complete with varnished wood floors under shady trees. Each tent has a viewing deck overlooking the Bua River.
“Our safari tent was well equipped and very comfortable,” said Christian. “The outdoor shower and toilet were great and we got generous supplies of hot water from this wood-fired donkey boiler that was lit by sticks every morning and evening.”
As there is no power at the lodge, all lighting is provided by paraffin lanterns and solar-powered lights.
“It made for quite a wonderful ambience,” said Christian. “And every night after eating with all the other guests at the main building, we each were guided back to our tents by lodge staff .”
Bua River Lodge is all about relaxation and getting away from it all, Christian explained.
“Guests can take short strolls along the river bank, or longer hikes to more remote areas on the river,” she said. “We also took an all day safari to a remote and little known part of the reserve to see the elephants.”