By Margaretta wa Gacheru (1 October 2018)
Rabies is a deadly viral disease that claims the lives of a minimum 2000 Kenyans every year, according to the World Health Organization and the Kenya Government’s Zoonotic Disease Unit.
“That figure is undoubtedly on the low side since many rabies fatalities occur in rural areas where they go unreported,” says Amy Rapp, founder of the animal welfare organization, TNR Trust.
Transmitted primarily by domestic animals, mainly dogs, but also cats, donkeys and other warm-blooded mammals, nearly half the fatalities from rabies are children under 15.
“Once infected, one needs to quickly wash his hands with soap and water, and then go for the post-exposure treatment,” says Ms Rapp who established TNR Trust specifically to address the rabies epidemic by eradicating the virus at its source.
“We aim to vaccinate as well as neuter dogs and cats as the most efficient and cost effective means of eliminating rabies. Otherwise, [post-exposure] treatment is not accessible to many Kenyans,” she adds. Estimated cost of it in Kenya is Sh10,000.
Caused mainly by a bite or scratch from an infected animal, the rabies virus enters as saliva through an open wound. It then spreads through the blood stream causing inflammation of the brain and spinal cord which is fatal.
Yet the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) notes that rabies is one of the most neglected and least researched of tropic diseases. It is also one that predominantly affects poor and vulnerable populations. According to WHO, if 66,000 people die of rabies every year, 99 percent of those fatalities occur either in Asia or Africa.
In 2014, the Kenya Government joined the global anti-rabies campaign for ‘Zero Human Rabies Deaths by 2030’. The Zoonotic Disease Unit presented a Strategy Paper for the Elimination of rabies through mass dog vaccination. It was implemented as a pilot project in six counties, namely Siaya, Homa Bay, Kisumu, Kitui, Machakos and Makueni.
The most successful of the six has been in Makueni where the government and Kenya Veterinary Association have partnered with several international animal welfare and human health organizations to both vaccinate thousands of dogs and raise public awareness.
Yet the Government’s campaign has slowed due to a ‘shortage of resources’, according to KVA’s Secretary General Emeritus, Kenneth Wameyo.
But given that reality, one reason Makueni County has been relatively successful in eliminating rabies is its decision to enlist support of private sector organizations, like World Animal Protection (WAP).
TNR Trust is also a private initiative established in 2015 which aims to work closely with KVA to eradicate rabies by taking a three-pronged approach.
On the one hand, they have raised private funds to construct a fully-equipped mobile clinic and hire a qualified Kenyan vet who will travel around rural areas and towns, vaccinating dogs and feral cats.
Additionally, TNR (which stands for ‘track, neuter and release’) will also neuter stray animals as a means of humanely reducing the dog and cat populations.
And finally, TNR is conducting an educational campaign aimed at reaching children in that age bracket statistically seen as most vulnerable.
“We were recently in Karura Forest with school children who we spoke to about rabies as well as the value of neutering dogs, since most bites come from domestic animals,” says Ms. Rapp.
Having grown up on an animal farm in Indiana, USA, where rabies was eradicated years ago, she established TNR to compliment the Kenya Government’s initiative.
“We have been raising funds for the past two years so that soon we’ll hire a qualified vet who will work out of our mobile clinic. And to ensure that procedures are conducted hygienically, we’ve equipped the clinic [designed by the same firm that constructed First Lady Margaret Kenyatta’s ‘Beyond Zero’ clinics] with solar power as well as an inverter and a generator.”