In a country with the highest per capita rate of human deaths from rabies - one in every 30,000 people - the government of Bangladesh and NGOs have undertaken the country’s first national dog census to prepare a mass vaccination and neutering campaign.
According to the government, dogs bit nearly 100,000 people in 2009 and at least 2,000 died of rabies - a 2 percent mortality rate. Sixty-five percent of those deaths were children under 15.
According to a 2005 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), 25,000 people in South Asia die of the disease annually, with dog bites causing 65 percent of those deaths.
Chief veterinary officer for Dhaka City Corporation Azmat Ali said stray dogs are the main carriers of rabies in Bangladesh. “After the breeding season ends in late autumn, stray dogs contract the infection and spread it to cattle and humans by biting them.”
The five-week census, launched on 20 December 2010, is being undertaken as part of the Department of Livestock Services’ (under the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock) public health programme, which includes a rabies control programme.
The pilot phase starts in Dhaka, with plans to roll out the count nationwide.
The survey is supported by the NGO Obhoyaronno (Bangladesh Animal Welfare Society) and is receiving technical support from Gujurat-based Humane Society International (HSI) in India.
Most of South Asia’s 25,000 annual deaths from rabies are in India, where 19,000 die every year from the disease, according to WHO. But with a much larger population, estimated at 1.1 billion in 2009 by the World Bank, the disease is under better control there, said Rubaiya Ahmed, Obhoyaronno’s founder.
“India is a pioneer when it comes to animal birth control. Although there are still many areas where dogs are culled, animal birth control is [in the process of being] implemented nationwide and it’s been very successful in reducing rabies both in humans and animals.”
Conducting a similar dog census as in Bangladesh, followed by a massive spraying and neutering campaign which targeted 70 percent of the canine population, HSI successfully reduced the number of human deaths from rabies in the Indian city of Jaipur from 500 in 2000 to zero in 2010.
“The same approach [culling] to controlling rabies has been used in Bangladesh for decades. If culling worked, it should have solved the problem of rabies by now,” said the director of HIS, Rahul Sehgal.
Animal welfare is still a new concept to the country and culling is widely practised, said Ahmed.
“Many people themselves live in inhumane conditions so it’s difficult to 'sell' the concept of animal welfare. But if you tell a person that by sterilizing animals, his or her chances of dying from rabies are reduced, there is a much greater chance of successfully convincing them.”
Obhoyaronno is working to establish Bangladesh as a no-culling nation by 2015.
Following the census in the capital, organizers expect to publish a report in March 2011, which will enable a plan to vaccinate, spray and neuter dogs in Dhaka.
Animal welfare organizers are hoping to avoid mistakes from the country’s first dog-neutering programme carried out in Narshingdi, a district 100km north of Dhaka, in November 2010. The campaign met with criticism when the chemical sterilizations resulted in painful swellings for stray male dogs.
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