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Bali resort grapples with mounting rabies epidemic

DENPASAR (AP) - Working from a tiny mobile clinic, the veterinary team netted and held down a dog plucked from the streets of Indonesia's most popular beach resort and administered a quick injection.

The shot was a rabies vaccine, and the stray was among only a few dozen lucky enough to receive the preventive treatment that could save its life. Authorities on Bali, nicknamed the "Land of Gods" because of its natural beauty and idillic climate, have responded to a deadly epidemic with vaccinations and widespread culling.

Despite protests from animal rights groups that argue vaccinations are the only humane solution, more than 25,000 feral dogs have been culled with poison in a year. In the same period, rabies killed 18 people and spread to seven out of Bali's nine districts.

The latest Indonesian epidemic is part of a regional problem, with about 31,000 out of 55,000 annual rabies deaths worldwide caused by dog bites in Asia, according to the WHO. Inoculations that cure humans already infected with rabies cost about $49 - more than 100 times the price of a preventive dog vaccination that runs about 30 cents.

Apparently unable to foot that cost, Bali has opted for the cheapest response, which is culling.

But culling is ineffective because of the nature of wild animals, warned the World Health Organization, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the local Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA).

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Killing dogs immediately reduces the stray population, but leads to higher birth rates because those remaining thrive on the extra food and water. Their puppies survive in greater numbers than before.

"We believe culling fails to address the cause of the problem. That's why it doesn't work," said Sarah Vallentine, WSPA's program manager for Companion Animals in Asia. "It also alienates dog owners, the very people you want on your side if you want to stop rabies."

Most of the estimated 300,000 to 450,000 dogs are strays and roam the streets in search of scraps. They are being poisoned with the relatively cheap drug strychnine, laced in food or put on a blow dart.

Rabies has an almost 100 percent cure rate when treated quickly with a series of shots, but without the right care it is usually fatal. By the time symptoms are discovered it is often too late, and the infected person will die painfully within seven days.

Children are particularly vulnerable because they have closer contact with dogs and are less likely to report a bite or get first aid.

Budget shortfalls, a lack of political support and insufficient personnel are holding up a vaccination program on Bali, said Rita Kusriatuti, a leading official for communicable animal diseases.

BAWA, run by Californian Janice Girardi, is struggling in the meantime to fill that gap. Established in 2006, the organization has 34 employees who operate a mobile clinic and plans to hire 10 more just to fight rabies.

An anti-rabies strategy was successfully applied in Chennai, an Indian city of 8 million, where 120 people died at the peak of an epidemic in 1996. Rabies cases and dog bites dropped dramatically to no fatalities by 2005 and not a single rabies death has been reported since January 2008.

A first rabies death was recorded on Bali in November 2008, but the epidemic seems to have had little impact on a generally busy year for tourism - an industry that contributes up to 80 percent of Bali's economy and draws millions of foreigners to Indonesia.

Bali could be rabies free within 12 month with a budget of $1 million, Girardi said in an interview. Bali officials have set a goal of eradicating rabies by 2012.

An outbreak began on the nearby Indonesian island of Flores in 1987 and at least 113 human deaths were reported between 1998 and 2003. Roughly 500,000 dogs, or 70 percent of the stray population, were clubbed to death.

Girardi's teams have worked with the Ministry of Animal Husbandry to vaccinate dogs in select villages on Bali over the past year, with about 60,000 dogs having been helped.

In the Balinese village of Silakarang, 59 dogs were inoculated last month when residents brought out their pets to the mobile vaccination station after being summoned by the local chief.

Even as officials focus on culling, Girardi believes the Balinese people would not kill dogs if they had another option.

"That option, of course, is to vaccinate the dogs, which we believe is the only way to eliminate rabies," she said.

 

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