Campaigns needed to fight rabies scourge
John Teo 
There is clear evidence the outbreak has spread beyond the swathe of border areas south of Kuching

The rabies outbreak in Sarawak has not gone away and that is bad news on several fronts for the state. Not only does it continue to pose a serious health risk for the population at large but there is a new bio-security risk as the state pushes ahead with animal husbandry exports. State Minister of Local Government and Housing Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian said late last year that to be officially declared rabies-free, there must be no new case of rabies or virus infection within a two-year period.

But, if anything, there is clear evidence the outbreak has spread beyond the swathe of border areas south of Kuching. Just last month, Assistant Minister of Housing and Public Health Dr Annuar Rapaee said rabies had been detected in a stray dog in Julau in the Sarikei division in central Sarawak at the end of the year and two further cases were reported on Jan 8.

The fear is that the disease may soon spread to another major urban centre, Sibu. Annuar had however reassured: “In order to keep Sibu division rabies-free, a rabies control programme has been drawn up and will be implemented immediately. This is crucial to prevent dogs in Sibu being affected by rabies.”

A mass anti-rabies vaccination exercise has also been launched in the division, targeting 70% of the estimated 35,000 dogs there.


Botched attempt?

The question, however, is whether the state administration had botched its initial efforts to contain the spread of the dreaded disease and is now caught in a possibly futile exercise to prevent it reaching other parts of the state.

Sim himself expressed healthy and realistic scepticism about the prospect to turn the state rabies-free anytime soon when he said: “I’m not sure if we can achieve this, but we have taken preventive and control measures since the first case was reported in the state last June.”

The initial shock felt by the general public over the return of rabies has more or less dissipated, owing perhaps to the authorities not taking full advantage of the horror the disease strikes by emphasising the urgency and absolute imperative of taking drastic and even draconian measures to prevent its spread.

The most standard operating procedure in the containment of any infectious disease spread by animals or livestock is by cutting off the most obvious link in its spread: in this case, stray dogs and cats running loose in the streets.

The prevalence of such strays has become something of a politically sensitive and delicate issue that politicians need to wade through rather gingerly in the course of addressing what rightly should be their main priority: the threats to the health of all citizens and ensuring all means are employed to counter such threats.

Ironically, it is otherwise sophisticated and worldly townsfolk who are posing potentially the gravest hindrance to the government’s move to adequately address this seemingly growing health menace.

Animal lovers, particularly in Kuching, seem to be waging a totally misguided and anti-social campaign, putting those whose official task it is to stop the spread of rabies on the defensive by coming to the aid of not just their own pets but of strays even. Some of them have clearly gone overboard, threatening the veterinary authorities with violence through social media.

Some of these campaigners have even taken to highlighting their cause in the mass media in an utterly self-centred move when they should be helping the authorities in the collective fight against the spread of rabies.

For example, several pet owners have apparently found sympathy with local media by taking up much space in a leading local daily on Jan 20 to question authorities about lack of news on the whereabouts of a lost individual pet dog which the owner had admitted “somehow escaped from her house compound”.

Local Member of Parliament Julian Tan had seen fit to become involved, calling on local authorities to be forthcoming with information on the whereabouts of the lost pet. To his credit, he qualified his statement of support by saying he understood the current situation which he described as “critical” owing to the prevailing rabies outbreak.

The veterinary and municipal authorities have their hands full coping with this public-health crisis without the side-sniping from pet owners and animal lovers, especially the irresponsible ones. Politicians are best advised to steer clear of coming to their defence at such sensitive times in the fight against the spread of rabies.


Coming to their senses

Fortunately, some of these people who seem to instinctively take up the case for animals have come to their senses, possibly due to criticisms levelled against them for going seriously off-tangent at a time when all energies ought to be channelled towards containing the spread of rabies.

Sarawak Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) has belatedly issued a statement in support of the authorities and their right under existing laws to put down animals that potentially pose health risks. Its president, Datin Dona Drury-Wee, has wisely advised pet owners to strictly keep their animals within house compounds at all times as stipulated by council by-laws and to be responsible animal keepers by neutering their pets to avoid them being particularly aggressive during mating season.

These are unusual times as the continued spread of rabies in a state as far-flung as Sarawak understandably poses nightmare scenarios as to how it can be quickly and effectively contained and eventually result in the state being declared rabies-free once again.

Both the authorities and organisations such as SSPCA ought to find ways to pool resources to launch high-profile public campaigns to educate the public on appropriate steps to take to help rid the state of the scourge.

It is, after all, in everyone’s best interest that the problem be licked as expeditiously as possible.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 270.