SEATTLE — Rabies, a preventable viral disease transmitted to humans through the bite and saliva of a rabid animal, infects the central nervous system, causing disease in the brain and, ultimately, death. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s annual rabies-related deaths occur in India, or 20,000 out of 55,000 deaths. To address this issue, Humane Society International (HIS) and the Animal Welfare Board of India teamed up to launch India’s first pilot project through the National Rabies Control Programme (NRCP).
The program was launched last month in Chandigarh, Haryana, with the help of the state government as part of a plan to find a more sustainable and humane way of dealing with street dog-related issues in the area and to subsequently reduce deaths caused by rabies in humans. The Chief Minister of Haryana, Shri Manohar Lal, has joined forces with HIS and NRCP. The program has been implemented as a pilot project only in Haryana, and the Ministry of Health will replicate it in other regions should the program prove to be successful.
India’s battle against rabies has been an ongoing one. Between 30 and 60 percent of rabies-related deaths are those of children, under the age of 15, who are victims of dog bites. Though rabies occurs in 15 countries today where the disease is endemic, India has seen by far some of the largest numbers of cases. Some estimates state that the Indian dog population is as high as 25 million. And in rural areas of the country—where overpopulation of street dogs often gets out of hand—many rabies victims are poor and uneducated, and seek treatment when it’s too late, provided they have access to healthcare at all.
Symptoms of rabies can include fever, headache, weakness, insomnia, anxiety, hallucination, difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia (fear of water), among others. Death typically occurs within only days of the onset of initial symptoms. Rabies is fatal if left untreated—a tragedy, especially when it affects children, because it can be prevented. Immediate treatment, wound cleansing and subsequent immunization after contact with a suspected rabid animal can save a patient’s life.
The most significant aspect of the NRCP’s project lies in its plans to educate communities about the disease. Through mass awareness and community engagement, HSI/India’s Dog Population Management program—NRCP’s animal component—hopes to both address the street dog program, and lower the number of human deaths caused by rabies. Initiatives such as educating people about effective rabies diagnosis should help manage rabies infections in Haryana’s population.
The overpopulation of street dogs in India is an undeniable factor in the country’s struggle with rabies-related deaths. The Dog Population Management program is also working directly with the dogs, with efforts to create a more accurate dog census, as well as mass sterilization and immunization of both street and domestic dogs. The pilot project’s goal is to work with the surplus of street dogs in the most humane way possible, with a focus on the welfare of both people and dogs.
Up until today, experts have said that one of the main obstacles when it comes to rabies elimination in India is the lack of a comprehensive national program. Should the joint efforts of Haryana’s government, HSI and NRCP bring success to the Haryana region when it comes to street dog management and educating the public about rabies, similar programs will be set up across India. This pilot program is worth following, as it will be, in the foreseeable future, a successful and long-awaited initiative to reduce the number of preventable rabies-related deaths in India.
– Elizabeth Nutt
Sources: WHO, HSI, CDC
Photo: Mission Rabies