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[MANILA] A tripartite alliance between the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) is targeting mass dog vaccination in at-risk areas to combat rabies, which kills annually nearly 70,000 people worldwide, mostly children in developing countries.

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. Once symptoms appear, the disease is always fatal. Rabies is present on all continents except Antarctica, but according to the WHO, more than 95 per cent of human deaths caused by rabies occur in Africa and Asia.

To target high risk areas, the OIE regional vaccine bank recently enabled the procurement and delivery of canine rabies vaccines to Indonesia (with the support of the Australian government), the Philippines (with purchases made by the WHO) and Tunisia (with funding from the European Union).

“Mass dog vaccination is critical to reducing and eventually eliminating rabies from a few defined areas where it is present at low levels,” Ronald Schultz, founding chair of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, tells SciDev.Net.

Schultz explains that while eliminating rabies will be impossible where it is endemic in wildlife, it is vital to continue the support of mass vaccinations of domestic dog populations as one step towards significant reduction of the disease.

According to the OIE, mass dog vaccinations have proven to be successful in Mexico, where the number of rabid dogs has nearly dropped to zero after mass dog vaccination campaigns, with a parallel decrease in human cases.

Barbara Häsler, lecturer in agrihealth at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, says that both upwards and downwards trends of the disease are possible. “This depends strongly on the implementation of effective control strategies,” she tells SciDev.Net.

Häsler cites targeted, large-scale rabies control programmes by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) such as in the challenging mountainous terrain of Sorsogon province in the Philippines, one of the top ten countries with rabies problem. The 1,251 volunteer vaccinators, composed of village health workers, agricultural and fishery workers and local youth council members, have achieved dog vaccination coverage of 64 per cent, or about 34,500 dogs.

Sarah Jayme, Philippine country representative of GARC, says that mass dog vaccination of at least 70 per cent remains the most cost effective means to control rabies at source while citing the economic cost of rabies annually which is at US$8.6 billion.

The WHO, FAO and OIE anti-rabies alliance has also made making human vaccines and antibodies affordable and ensuring that people who get bitten receive prompt treatment as additional key factors in eliminating the disease.

Louise Taylor, scientific director at GARC, notes, “For some travellers, such as those likely to be in close contact with animals, or travelling to very remote areas, vaccination before you travel is recommended. For most, the advice is to understand how to quickly get help in the event that you are bitten. Even with vaccination, you still need to get booster shots.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.