On the Wrong Track with Rabies

By Elizabeth Henzell
For The Bali Times

UBUD ~ For the past month, headline news in Bali and Jakarta newspapers has been the horror stories about the outbreak of rabies in areas of Bali, and the official report of deaths from rabies is now at four.

Bali now has the vaccine for rabies, so the local media were able to advise what to do in such a situation. That’s good news.

However, the sad news is that often misinformation can lead to mistakes and one article, “Denpasar Goes on Alert as More Rabid Dogs Found,” had the line: “In response to complaints from animal rights groups about the culling of wild dogs since the rabies scare, [government rabies-force pathologist Anak Agung Gde] Putra said Bali was committed to its vaccination and elimination program.”

I spoke with the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) and they said categorically that BAWA was not against euthanizing dogs that show signs of rabies or are seriously ill, but that they were against the inhumane and indiscriminate culling of healthy street dogs. BAWA would like the government to order enough vaccines so that they can do a mass vaccination of all stray dogs.

There have been reports of meatballs with poison placed around Kuta streets and beaches. BAWA believe this method of placing strychnine-laced meatballs on the city’s streets and beaches is irresponsible and poses a potential health risk to children, Bali wildlife and, of course, the obvious, the Bali street dogs and cats, many of whom are owned pets that are not fenced in.

BAWA has been in touch with World Health Organisation (WHO) experts and they have been warned that a mass culling of dogs will likely lead to a rat explosion and, in turn, this may bring even more serious diseases to Bali, such as leptospirosis, typhus and the plague.

There is no doubt that these diseases will cause a more serious threat to Bali and Bali tourism than the rabies situation. Unfortunately, when this information was passed to a government official in charge, his reply, “Cats will keep the rats away,” indicated a clear lack of understanding of the enormity of the problem.

International experts in the field of immunology and infectious diseases advise that cats will only eat mice up to seven ounces and will do nothing to keep the large, disease-carrying rats away. This, a report by James Childs, professor in the department of immunology and infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, is the job of stray dogs.

WHO officials have recommended that Bali initiate an island-wide canine rabies vaccination program. They say that 75 percent of all dogs and cats here must be vaccinated against rabies or Bali should be prepared for rabies to become endemic.

Culling of strays is not the answer the WHO emphasized. This was done in Flores 10 years ago, when 70 percent of all dogs were culled, and today there is still rabies on the island. Similar studies and reports from India, Thailand and other countries say the same. The only answer is mass vaccinations of all dogs (and cats) on the island.

At the present time it is still not permitted to have rabies vaccines outside of the suspected rabies areas. However, international rabies experts disagree with this. It is common knowledge within animal welfare associations that dogs often travel 10 kilometers or more looking for mates and, therefore, can easily spread the disease to many parts of Bali currently not known to be affected.

Last week BAWA staff followed and photographed a dog-catcher who had 10 dogs tied on the back of his motorbike (as pictured). They reported that the man, from Denpasar, had caught the dogs there and then transported them to Singaraja, where he sold the dogs to a restaurant specializing in dog meat. The dog-catcher told the BAWA staff quite openly that he often catches and transports dogs across Bali.

The BAWA staff reported the dog-catcher’s activities to the government but they were not interested in pursuing the matter further. This highlights the need for the government to take firm measures to control the transportation of dogs from rabies-affected areas, as well as readdressing the need for animal welfare legislation in Indonesia.

BAWA is hoping to encourage the government to invite international rabies experts from the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations to assist Bali in addressing the current rabies problem. These organizations have already expressed a willingness to assist but are waiting for an invitation from the Indonesian government.

BAWA staff say they are not experts but are willing to learn from others who have dealt with rabies for decades. They believe that the government should take the same stance and try to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.

It is imperative that all the banjars on the island of Bali be notified of the current rabies situation and have educational material provided to the public outlining what they need to do to keep themselves and their pets safe.

BAWA says the only way to address the rabies problem is with proactive and preventative measures. “We would also like the government to support dog and cat sterilization programs across Bali, such as the one BAWA successfully operates now, to humanely and responsibly deal with the dog and cat population,” said one staffer.

Bali dogs are an integral part of Bali and its culture. Please help protect them and keep them healthy, safe and rabies-free.

If you would like information regarding ways in which you can help, please call BAWA on 0361 981490 or visit www.bawabali.com.

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