Turning Rabid Over Rabies

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Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is now Malaysia’s most-hated man, at least as far as dog lovers are concerned. Since he approved the cull of stray dogs in response to a rabies outbreak in Penang, outraged dog lovers have been ranting non-stop about “innocent dogs” or “furkids” being killed because of human folly.

Their outrage, however, is based on a mixture of the truth and falsehoods. Let’s take a look at some of these claims and see which are true, and which are false. We will also address some questions and answers on rabies and the culling of dogs.


Culling Dogs Is The Best Way To Control Rabies

Many dog lovers claim that Lim Guan Eng said that culling stray dogs is the best way to control rabies. They would point at the WHO recommendation of vaccinations as the best way to eradicate rabies, and claim that he’s not following expert advice. Well, there are two problems with these claims.

First of all, Lim Guan Eng never actually said that a cull is the best way to eradicate rabies. He only said, “It’s the best way to tackle the problem,” on the 18th of September. That vague comment might have precipitated the outrage, as Malaysians are generally wont to think beyond soundbites.

As Lim Guan Eng himself pointed out, he made the decision based on the recommendation of the veterinary and health authorities. In fact, Malaysian Veterinary Services Department Enforcement Division director, Datuk Mohamed Radzuan Malek, said :

If the wild dogs are not controlled, and culled, the rabies epidemic will not be truly controlled and can spread. More importantly, if it spreads to a dog with an owner, the risks of infection is very high.

This brings us to the second point. No one actually disputes that vaccinating dogs is the gold standard in the long-term eradication of rabies, as per WHO recommendations. If we read the official statements carefully, they were all referring to the current outbreak, specifically in the context of the lack of the rabies vaccine.

The constant pleas for the veterinary services to vaccinate the stray dogs, instead of killing them, fly in the face of reality. No Chief Minister can agree to vaccinate the stray dogs instead of killing them when there are no vaccines to speak of. The Malaysian Veterinary Service Department ran out of vaccines on the 21st of September. They have no rabies vaccine to vaccinate pet dogs, much less the far more numerous stray dogs.


NGOs Offered To Vaccinate The Dogs But Were Snubbed

The Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS) said that they will supply 50,000 doses of the rabies vaccine and, if necessary, manpower to conduct mass vaccination of stray and pet dogs in Penang. Local NGOs and dog lovers have pounced on this as reason enough to stop the cull of stray dogs.

The only problem is – the vaccines and the WVS vaccination team will only arrive by the end of the year. This was what the “Stop The Killing, Start Vaccinating” coalition said on the 22nd of September :

Due to the required paperwork and applications that needed to be done to bring in the vaccines and mobilize manpower, the vaccines and the team may only arrive in Penang at the end of the year.


Lim Guan Eng Refused To Talk To The NGOs

That is not true. They conveniently ignored the fact that Lim Guan Eng himself met local NGOs, Save Our Strays (SOS) and 4Paws on the 20th of September.

Two days later, on the 22nd of September, Penang state representatives had a tele-conference with Dr. Luke Gamble, CEO of the Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS) and the “Stop The Killing, Start Vaccinating” coalition of NGOs.


NGOs Are Being Banned From Vaccinating Strays

This is one of the most egregious claims. When critics of the cull are challenged on why local NGOs are wasting their time criticising the Chief Minister instead of vaccinating stray dogs, the common retort is that those NGOs were not given permission or approval to do so.

This is a hilarious claim because there is no law that prevents anyone from vaccinating stray dogs. Anyone, whether a private individual or an NGO member, can go out right now, catch a stray dog and vaccinate it. Claiming otherwise is not only dishonest but shows a desire to cast blame, rather than look for a solution.


Only 2 People Were Diagnosed With Rabies

The fact of the matter is 30 people were “diagnosed” with rabies in the tri-state area of Penang, Kedah and Perlis as of the 21st of September 2015. Three were in Penang :

  • a 44-year old man in Pokok Sena, Seberang Prai on the 8th of September
  • a 11-year old boy in Taman Nelayan, Balik Pulau on the 14th of September
  • a 65-year old man in Balik Pulau on the 18th of September

Perlis has the most cases – 22 victims since the 19th of August, while Kedah recorded 5 cases since the 13th of September.

Turning Rabid Over Rabies - The Rojak Pot


But Didn’t The Health Minister Say That No One Was Infected With Rabies?

Malaysian Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr. S Subramaniam clouded the issue further when he claimed on the 23rd of September that there were “no confirmed cases of rabies in humans so far“. Technically, that soundbite is correct because all of the victims were treated before they became symptomatic, but it is not accurate.

There is no antemortem test for rabies. The only definitive test involves euthanising the infected animal and removing its brain to inspect for the presence of Negri bodies, or to perform the fluorescent antibody test (FAT). Because it would be criminal (heh!) to kill a human being to test his/her brains for rabies, there is no way to know for sure if any human victims were infected with rabies.

The diagnosis of human victims is usually based on any symptoms they may exhibit, or the inspection of the dogs that bit them. If the dog that bit a victim is found to have rabies, then it is assumed that the victim is infected with rabies. The victim would be prophylactically treated with the rabies vaccine.


Why Not Vaccinate Humans Instead?

Some critics of the cull are suggesting that since it’s so difficult to catch and vaccinate stray dogs, it would be easier to vaccinate the human population instead. The problem is two-fold :

  1. Pre-exposure rabies vaccination involves 3 separate injections over 21-28 days.
  2. Each injection of the human rabies vaccine costs at least RM 500 (US$ 116). That means the cost for a full vaccination is at least RM 1,500 (US$ 350).

Vaccinating 1.65 million Penangnites would not only cost RM 2.5 billion (US$ 575 million), it would take a really long time and many healthcare workers to accomplish. That’s why the pre-exposure vaccine is usually given only to those who work with wild animals.


Why Not Catch & Quarantine?

Some critics of the cull also suggested catching and quarantining the stray dogs, instead of killing them. A quarantine is a good idea if a certain animal is suspected of being infected with rabies. It allows the Veterinary Services Department to avoid killing the animal by monitoring it for symptoms instead. However, this is not possible for large numbers of stray dogs.

Every dog that is quarantined must have its own cage, and they must all be separated from each other because an infected dog can spread rabies through its saliva and open wounds. There is absolutely no question of simply corralling them in a fenced-off area.

Each dog will also need to be monitored for symptoms of rabies for no less than 10 days. Even when a dog does not show any symptoms after 10 days, it cannot be released into the wild until the outbreak is over, or it is vaccinated. Letting it loose will simply put it at risk of being infected in the wild.


Culling Spreads Rabies

This is another egregious claim by critics of the cull. Some claim that WHO said that culling spreads rabies – this is not true. The article oft-quoted by them as “evidence” only states that vaccinations are more effective than culling in eradicating rabies.

Others claim that culling spreads rabies because attempts to catch stray dogs will cause them to run away, thereby spreading rabies to other areas. The problem with this opinion is that vaccinating stray dogs will also involve catching them first.


They Are Shooting The Dogs!

This is yet another false claim. The Malaysian Veterinary Services Department does not use guns to kill stray dogs. They may use tranquilliser darts to knock out stray dogs, to minimise risk to their employees. The dogs are then put to sleep after they are completely tranquillised.


They Are Beheading The Dogs

Yes, they are beheading some of the stray dogs they killed. Not because they are sadists, but because the only way to diagnose rabies is to test the brain tissue. The brain tissue samples are sent to the Veterinary Research Institute in Ipoh for diagnosis.


How Can You Kill So Many Dogs???

For some reason, critics of the cull actually believe that the Penang state government is out to kill all 40,000 stray dogs estimated to be roaming the streets of Penang. That is actually an impossible task, just like it is impossible to eradicate rats or crows.

In fact, only 342 stray dogs were culled in Penang from the 16th to the 21st of September – an average of 57 dogs per day. At this rate, they will need two years to kill 40,000 stray dogs. The fact of the matter is the Veterinary Services Department cannot possibly cull more than a small percentage of the stray dog population.


There Is Logic Behind The “Madness”

A cull isn’t always the mindless killing of stray dogs. The cull, if properly executed, would only occur in areas where cases of rabies have been reported. This is akin to fogging an area with reported cases of dengue fever.

The idea is to try and kill dogs that have been infected with rabies. Infected dogs may not be symptomatic, and there is no antemortem test for rabies. Hence, if a case of rabies has been reported in a particular area, all strays in that area must be caught and culled.


The Cull Isn’t Happening Only In Penang

For some reason, dog lovers and animal rights activists are focusing their ire on Penang, and its Chief Minister. Virtually none of them have questioned the same cull happening in Perlis and Kedah.

The Veterinary Services Department had been culling dogs in Perlis and Kedah before the directive for the culling of stray dogs in Penang was issued. In fact, the majority of dogs that have been culled so far are from Perlis and Kedah.

One can only speculate why stray dogs in Penang are more special and more deserving of protection against the cull than stray dogs in Perlis and Kedah…

Maybe Penang dogs are cuter...
Maybe Penang dogs are cuter…


Show Us The Vaccine

For all of the debates and arguments on social media, both sides actually agree that vaccinations is the gold standard. The problem is the lack of rabies vaccine – a problem that cannot be immediately addressed.

The cull is the result of this logistical problem. There is no use ranting about vaccination being far superior to a cull if there is no vaccine to use.

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