Caged by the Complete Failure to Deal with Rabies

Most mornings I walk down our 25 external stairs and venture into our limited stretch of street, hoping for a pleasant and uneventful meander from one short end, at which I might gather a few fallen frangipanis, to the other, where I might have a magnificent view of part of Bali’s coastline and central volcanoes.

Then I plan to walk up and down those 25 stairs at least 11 more boring times when all I want to do is stride off around the hills of the Bukit, to find new places, see new things and meet new people. Sadly those days are gone.

In mid-2007, when we move to Ungasan, we are off rambling around the hills for hours every morning. It is wonderful, invigorating and instructive. We meet good people.

In 2008, we start carrying sticks and stones to ward off the cunning packs of dogs that try to surround us. We are alert, armed but not alarmed.  Then we find news of rabies in Bali.

The friendly watchman of a deserted resort, one of our favoured walking stops for its fabulous views, acquires a rifle. At home, we hear gunshots in the hills. Then, late in 2008, we get confirmation of the first recorded human death from rabies in Bali, in Ungasan, and very close.

The Playmate, sensibly, bans us both and all visitors from venturing further on foot than the length of our short road. He likens me to a caged lion when I emerge 12 times each morning from the external stairwell. Yes, I want to break out and roam the hills of the Bukit. I have no tolerance for our guests who complain at their temporary confinement. Mine has been nearly two years.

During the week, regular visitors from Europe report growing numbers of undisciplined dogs on Tanjung Benoa beach and a Canggu resident tells us he is kept awake nightly by noisy packs of stray dogs.

One morning I head along our short road, wondering why the neighbour’s two new, two-month-old puppies aren’t tumbling about. Then I spot the dead one, under a large shady plant, stiff from death around 15 hours ago. Haven’t its owners missed it? What if I had missed it? Where is the other puppy?

The puppy owners’ housekeeper, after we stop her from picking up the corpse in her hands, confirms the second puppy is sick. Last month she’d sworn the puppies had been vaccinated. Today she doesn’t know.

The Indonesian woman who had bought the puppies in Seminyak is finally persuaded, unlike her Western partner, to emerge from her home to discuss the death. Yes, the dogs have had injections for rabies, she says – one each.

It takes three, Dear, and then boosters every three years. This, apparently, is news to everyone, including a neighbouring family whose dog, which fraternised daily with the dead puppies, has received only two but not three injections.

The puppy owner brightens to ask if we have a dog of our own. The “No” answer leaves her totally perplexed as to why, then, should we care about a dead dog in our street, in our garden actually, and be wasting her time?

The second puppy dies a very audibly uncomfortable death the same day. We make sure the local banjar (neighbourhood) is informed. Reportedly the banjar response is a theory that the dogs had eaten bad food and “maybe” the banjar would visit and “maybe” do a check.      

This is a thoroughly inadequate response. Almost 100 people in Bali have died from rabies in the past 22 months. The deaths have resulted from a combination of ignorance on the part of dog owners and dog-bite victims of the course of treatment they need and the timeframe in which they need it; and a shameful incapacity of our health facilities to provide vaccinations in a timely way, or at all.

Most discussion has been about dogs while, clearly, many dog owners don’t know how to, or don’t care to, protect their dogs and therefore their families, neighbours and ultimately their economy from rabies.

The Bali administration should ask the island’s fathers and mothers a simple question: What is more important – the life of your child and your economic future or the life of your dog? 

The answer should then guide the administration in its expenditure of funds in the battle against rabies. Focus on the people, please. Focus on your future.

Currently there appears to be an attitude of: It’s not my problem, so it’s not my responsibility. The administration must make it someone’s responsibility.

I propose it become the responsibility of the banjars. Let them (try to) ensure their local medical facilities are equipped with vaccine to treat bite victims. Make the banjars responsible for educating their constituencies about rabies prevention and control for themselves, their children and their animals.

Let the banjars control dogs in their areas. Let the banjars answer for deaths from rabies. Make it local. Make it Not In My Back Yard. It usually works. Nothing else has.

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