As the country gears up for World Rabies Day tomorrow, the main impediment to eradicating the deadly disease is lack of awareness. Rabies kills at least 2,000 Kenyans annually, according to the Zoonotic Diseases Unit .
The rabies virus is transmitted through the bites or scratches of infected animals and has no cure. However, many Kenyans who own dogs, cats and donkeys fail to appreciate the risk they are exposed to when they do not take anti-rabies vaccinations.
Kenya Veterinary Association secretary general emeritus Kenneth Wameyo says vets and the government aim to rid the county of dogs-mediated rabies by 2030.
The drive, however, has been slowed down by a shortage of resources.
“We have tried investing in informing people right up to the grassroots about rabies and how it can be prevented, but have not penetrated enough,” he said.
The theme of this year’s celebration is: “Share the message, save a life”, indicating that the focus of the anti-rabies messaging is public awareness.
The government launched national anti-rabies campaigns in Makueni county in September 2014. It unveiled a strategy paper detailing what would be done to rid the county of the incurable disease by 2030.
“Elimination is achievable through mass dog vaccination because dogs are responsible for transmission of over 98 per cent of all human rabies,” the strategy paper read. It was signed by signed by the then Agriculture CS Felix Kosgey and Health CS James Macharia.
The government, through the elimination strategy, says rabies causes approximately 60,000 human deaths worldwide annually, with one person dying of rabies every 10 minutes.
The burden associated with rabies remains highest in the developing countries like Kenya. Children below 15 are the most exposed to the risk of rabies infection, especially in rural areas.
“The cost associated with post-exposure prophylaxis in humans is high and exceeds the cost of rabies control in animals through dog vaccinations,” the strategy says.
Six counties with a high burden of the disease were selected for piloting the mass dog vaccination campaign, targeting more than 70 per cent of dog population annually for three years. The piloting comes to a close this year and covers Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay, Kitui, Machakos and Makueni.
Wameyo, a veterinary specialist and consultant himself, told the Star some of these problems will form part of the thematic areas during this year's World Rabies Day celebration to be held in Diani, Kwale county.
World Rabies Day is an annual global fete, and the KVA mobilises animal health practitioners and vets to give back to the society by teaching animal owners proper husbandry, besides mounting animal health camps.
“We will do mass anti-rabies vaccination camps in Kwale county on the day, targeting not only dogs but also donkeys, cats and other domestic animals as part of our CSR,” said Dr Wameyo. Similar activities will be done in other counties, including Makueni, Nandi, Kisumu and Siaya.
A scientific conference bringing together veterinary researchers, doctors, and partners, including drug manufacturers, the government, and animal welfare groups, including World Animal Protection, will precede the day.
Wameyo, who is at the crux of the planning, says the conference will take stock of the successes in the anti-rabies campaign, the setbacks and the way forward.
“The conference always provides an opportunity for experience sharing and assessing the strategies in enhancing animal health in the country in general, not only among dogs,” he said.
The strides made in the drive to zero-rate human-mediated infections are evident in Makueni county, one of those undergoing mass vaccination.
Livestock chief officer Martin Mboloi says the county has vaccinated 230,000 dogs. “This represents about 64 per cent of the dog population, making us edge closer to the target,” he said.
“Soon after the launch of the drive here, the county secured partnership with organisations in the animal and human health sector, and this has given a boost to the campaign, particularly focusing on responsible dog ownership.”
The chief officer said the county has invested Sh8 million and partnering organisations injected Sh24 million, making the devolved unit edge closer to being declared human-mediated rabies free.
World Animal Protection, a charitable global animal welfare outfit, has been a dominant player in the anti-rabies campaigns by the state.
Besides partnering with the government's Zoonotic Disease Unit to develop the National Rabies Elimination Strategy, the organisation has been working with counties to train people on humane animal treatment.
In Makueni alone, the NGO has committed Sh20 million in the drive, besides working direct follow-ups with dog owners.
Mboloi said the animal welfare outfit has renewed this year’s funding for the programme.
Emily Mudoga, the animal in community campaigns manager at WAP, said Makueni county's efforts in tackling rabies have succeeded largely due to a “bottom-up approach in decision making”.
“The county has been operating on an open-door policy, allowing partners like WAP and the residents to work together in enforcing the strategies,” Mudoga told reporters a press road trip.
“Much of the activities in the campaign invested a lot in the people, reaching out to them and educating them on proper dog husbandry,” she said. The aim was to make people value their animals and see them as part of their socioeconomic dynamics.
County veterinary officer Mark Matheka said: “This made the people of Makueni own the drive.”
The county has vet officers on standby for calls by residents to attend to any case and also to teach them on proper dog handling.
Matheka said the county has made the anti-rabies campaign broad-based, involving the Health and Education departments, among others.
“We involve the teachers in the drive to teach children about responsible animal ownership, and so the message has spread to the society. We also involve village elders,” he said.
Livestock chief officer Mboloi, a veterinary doctor himself, said his department is working on a bill that will make responsible animal ownership mandatory, requiring that locals have their dogs vaccinated annually and have a certificate for it.
“Even cases of dogs wandering in the local villages and Wote town have reduced drastically. People also no longer beat up their animals, as was the case before,” he said.
KVA’s Wameyo welcomed the initiative, saying: “The bill should require dog owners to have licences and punitive measures instituted to ensure people take animal health seriously.”
Dog owner Joseph Mutui, 58, from Kathonzweni said the mass anti-rabies vaccination programme has made people friendlier to domestic animals. He said he helps in mobilising people to respond to the drive.
“My dog, Bruno, is a friend,” he said. “I even became a community health volunteer as part of this mass anti-rabies campaign.”
Bruno, a female dog, was adopted by WAP when six months old in 2014 and has been a recipient of annual vaccines. She is used as a model by the organisation to train the residents on how to practise responsible dog keeping.
Mudoga, also a vet, led WAP staff in training Mutinda’s neighbours on how to care for pets. They received Bruno’s puppies, who were given anti-rabies jabs.
Retired civil servant Bernadette Koki said her mother almost died of rabies in 1998, so she takes the county’s anti-rabies campaign seriously.