If Bali is winning its war against rabies, that is good news. It is certainly “good news” the provincial government and its chief animal doctor, Putu Sumantra, would like people to believe. But on the evidence available, it is not yet safe to assume the war is indeed being won.
It is possible to read out lists of numbers and cite names of communities in which rabies is not detected (rendered in the anodyne and potentially misleading terms of bureaucratic language as “absent”) but this does not confer immunity from threat. It is also in the narrow, sectional political interests of the government and its servants – and the good souls of the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) – to paint a picture of progress.
We hope the picture thus painted, in last week’s official presentations and the comments of BAWA chief Janice Girardi and others, is accurate. If tests on dogs in 10 villages in Bali in the past 12 months indicate no signs of rabies, fine; but there are more than 700 villages on the island and it is clear from very recent events – the Nusa Penida outbreak and deaths among them – that the enemy is still on the battlefield, and expanding the area of operations, in large but unknown numbers.
Rabies has now killed more than 120 people in Bali since 2008, when it was belatedly identified by dozing officialdom that then let it break out from the Bukit. That most of the deaths would have been prevented by a properly resourced and enforced post-exposure vaccination programme, at public cost, makes them even more unconscionable; but officialdom would prefer you to believe the victims brought their own misfortune upon themselves by failing to seek vaccination, or perhaps by being unlucky enough to be bitten by an infected dog in an area where uncaring bureaucracy and shambolic logistics had failed to ensure access to vaccines.
The rabies story is not good, whatever gloss is put on it. Balinese society is partly to blame for its spread, through its cavalier attitude to neighbourhood dogs, the misplaced energy people put into evading their responsibilities and especially costs associated with these, and except in some areas, a lack of interest by banjars (local community organisations) in keeping down dog numbers in their own localities.
We hope the Bali authorities and BAWA are right in their assertion that rabies is on the retreat. But despite the hopeful language and the generous interpretation of unverifiable data, the jury is still out on that vital point. We are told officially that there is no rabies in Kuta or on Serangan Island, both (by no coincidence) important tourist areas. But we know too, from our own observation and anecdotally from readers, that dog-vaccination teams are conspicuous only by absence in many areas. There is a long way to go before anyone can safely say rabies is reduced to insignificance as a threat to human life in Bali.