How to eradicate canine rabies in 10 years or less

by Merritt Clifton

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Animal People, a leading independent newspaper providing original investigative coverage of animal protection worldwide, the following article on eradicating canine rabies has been posted here with permission from the newspaper’s editorial team.

“Rabies could be gone in a decade,” BBC News headlined worldwide on September 8, 2007. “Rabies could be wiped out across the world,” the BBC report continued, “if sufficient vaccinations are carried out on domestic dogs, according to experts.” BBC News went on to quote staff of the Royal Dick Veterinary School at Edinburgh University in Scotland, who were among the cofounders of the Alliance for Rabies Control and promoters of the first World Rabies Day, held on September 7, 2007. None of the Alliance for Rabies Control spokespersons appear to have actually set any sort of timetable for possibly eradicating rabies, but no matter. Experts have recognized for decades that rabies is wholly eradicable from all species except bats through targeted mass immunization — and the chief obstacle to eradicating bat rabies is that no one has developed an aerosolized vaccine that could be sprayed into otherwise inaccessible caves and tree trunks. Inventing such a vaccine is considered difficult but possible.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control rabies program chief Charles Rupprecht on World Rabies Day formally pronounced the U.S. free of canine rabies, but similar informal proclamations have been issued for years. “The tools for effective rabies control are available. What is lacking is the motivation, commitment and resources to tackle the disease effectively,” the Alliance for Rabies Control declared. “Mass vaccination of the domestic dog provides the most cost-effective and efficient strategy for controlling canine rabies and hence transmission from dogs to humans,” the Alliance elaborated. “Lacking are the delivery systems, public education campaigns and resources to apply these technologies in the developing world.”

Asserting that rabies kills 100 children per day, worldwide, the Alliance for Rabies Control acknowledged that “Rabies is also a
concern for animal welfare, as fear of the disease results in hostile and antagonistic attitudes towards dogs and often inhumane
approaches to dealing with suspected rabid dogs by communities.” The Alliance for Rabies Control emphasizes the need to expand dog vaccination against rabies in Asia and Africa.

“In Asia and Africa,” the Alliance for Rabies Control points out, “the domestic dog is the main reservoir for rabies. As rabies is generally maintained only in a single reservoir population in any given area, control of disease in this population will result in its disappearance from all other species. This has been demonstrated with the elimination of rabies following oral vaccination of foxes in western Europe, where red foxes are the reservoir host. Results from research projects in eastern Africa show that mass vaccination of domestic dogs has the same result, even in areas such as the Serengeti ecosystem, which comprise a wide diversity of wildlife species. When sufficient domestic dogs are vaccinated, rabies also declines in wildlife, and human exposures to the rabies virus are significantly reduced.”

“In areas where there is a high prevalence of rabies, such as Africa and Asia, “the Alliance for Rabies Control added, “the need for vaccination has often been overlooked, despite the fact this would cost less than other health care programs,” including administering post-exposure rabies immunization to save dog bite victims.

The Alliance for Rabies Control strongly favors post-exposure immunization, as well as prophylactic vaccination, but points out that post-exposure immunization is not a rabies suppression strategy, because it does not neutralize the host reservoir. Subsidized post-exposure vaccination is the standard response to rabies in India, China, and much of Africa. Post-exposure vaccination saves thousands of lives annually, despite many failures when dog bite victims fail to seek treatment soon enough, do not complete the full course of injections, or receive fake, expired, or obsolescent vaccines, a problem particularly prevalent in parts of India and China, where post-exposure vaccines are often made by local suppliers, using formulas elsewhere long abandoned.

While post-exposure vaccination is essential, and should continue, with improvement to achieve consistently positive results, progress toward eliminating rabies has been markedly faster in nations that have emphasized preventively vaccinating dogs. Argentinian medical doctor Oscar Larghi demonstrated during the mid-1990s, for example, that inexpensive three-month dog vaccination drives could succeed in even the largest and poorest shanty-towns. Larghi also demonstrated that while reducing the street dog population may be of some value in reducing the numbers of dogs to be vaccinated, dog population reduction is not otherwise a significant or essential part of an effective rabies control strategy.

Reported Larghi to the members of the International Society for Infectious Diseases in May 1998, “Control of rabies in developing countries can be very successful if based on appropriate planning, health education of human populations, 70% vaccine coverage of dog populations, and epidemiological surveillance. These parameters, with little emphasis in dog population reduction (less than 10% of the estimated population), were applied in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, Argentina (10.5 million inhabitants), Lima-Callao, Peru (6.5 million inhabitants), and Sao Paulo, Brazil (14 million inhabitants). Dog rabies cases were reduced to zero, from close to 5,000 cases per year in Buenos Aires, 1,000 in Lima, and 1,200 in Sao Paulo.”

In each city, the rabies control teams impounded and euthanized only dogs who appeared to be already rabid, aggressive, or otherwise severely unhealthy.

The preventive vaccination approach also works in wildlife. Anne Arundel County, Maryland, for example, had 97 cases of animal
rabies in 1997, when county officials began experimentally distributing oral rabies vaccine pellets to immunize raccoons. Gradually
expanding the program, the county had just 10 animal rabies cases in 2006.

An attempt begun a year earlier to eradicate coyote rabies in Texas, by air-dropping vaccine bait pellets, achieved a 98% reduction of canine rabies in all species by 1998.

As long ago as 1973, William Winkler, M.D., of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned in the National Academy of Sciences’ handbook Control of Rabies, that “Persistent trapping or poisoning campaigns as a means to rabies control should be abolished. There is no evidence,” Winkler wrote, “that these costly and politically attractive programs reduce either wildlife reservoirs or rabies incidence.” Similar language has appeared ever since in the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention & Control, an annual publication of the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians.

Good examples and bad

Agriculture and Rural Development director Ferreira da Conceição of Lunada province, Angola, took the necessary approach in August 2007, directing a three-week drive that vaccinated 63,544 dogs, cats, monkeys, livestock, and work animals. But a more discouraging example emerged in Addis Ababa, the national capital of Ethiopia, just a month after the Homeless Animal Protection Society of Ethiopia seemed to be making headway toward establishing a high-volume dog sterilization and vaccination program after seven years of struggle. As with other sterilization and vaccination programs around the world, the vaccination component would be the essential element in rabies prevention. Sterilization would stabilize the dog population to prevent the other complaints about dogs’ presence and behavior that so often causes public officials to seize upon even the vaguest hint of a rabies outbreak as an excuse to kill dogs.

As the July/August 2007 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE recounted, HAPS in June 2007 rescued four street dogs from a 70-year-old gun emplacement where they had been dumped to die, British songwriter Maria Daines’ recording One Small Dog, written in appreciation of the rescue and titled in honor of the bravest dog, on August 2, 2007 reached the #1 position on the Soundclick pop rock chart.
Daines donated all proceedings from her surprise hit to HAPS, but HAPS cofounders Hana Kifle and Efrem Legese had little to celebrate. HAPS had won a contract from the Addis Ababa government to sterilize and vaccinate street dogs. The contract enabled them to operate a clinic, but the contract was unfunded. As a little-known charity in a remote location, HAPS had difficulty attracting the support required to treat the half million dogs in Addis Ababa who must be sterilized and vaccinated to reach the 70% target necessary to stabilize the dog population and prevent rabies from spreading among them.

Revoking the contract, and HAPS’ authorization to run the clinic, Addis Ababa officials announced that they would use strychnine to poison as many dogs as possible to try to eradicate rabies before the mid-September celebration of the Coptic millennium. Thereby, the officials demonstrated that they had learned little more about rabies control, animal population management, and urban sanitation than might have been known to the Queen of Sheba, who reputedly lived near Addis Ababa about 3,000 years ago.

Poisoning street dogs had already been introduced as long as 2,000 years earlier in Egypt-and poisoning campaigns that caused dog populations to briefly crash might have contributed to the conditions that drew African desert cats into Egyptian cities to hunt rats and mice. Those cats became the progenitors of today’s domestic house cats and feral cats. Under pressure of medieval cat purges, domestic and feral cats approximately quadrupled their fecundity: the mummified remains of early Egyptian cats reveal that they had only two kittens per litter and one litter per year, like African desert cats, but modern house cats and feral cats often have litters of four or more kittens, and raise two litters per year if conditions permit.

Public policymakers have pursued backward and self-defeating animal control strategies since the dawn of civilization because the logic of exterminating animals who are perceived as nuisances appears inescapable: kill them and they will be no more. Dead animals do not reproduce, the policymakers reason. Neither do dead animals transmit deadly diseases, like rabies, which can only be spread through live hosts.

Yet life had already evolved a counter-strategy many hundreds of millions of years before humans existed. All species, from the rabies virus to blue whales, reproduce up to the carrying capacity of their habitat, as rapidly as possible. If one species succumbs to disease, disaster, or predation so rapidly that it cannot fill the habitat, another species moves in. Never does nature allow habitat to go unoccupied. Until the carrying capacity of cities for free-roaming mid-sized predators and scavengers is permanently reduced by instituting effective sanitation, campaigns to exterminate street dogs, feral cats, or any other established resident species merely exchanges those animals for others. Killing dogs and cats not only removes a major check on the growth of the rat
and mouse population, for instance, but invites in more problematic species to take their places.

Many Asian cities now have hard-to-control populations of feral pigs, macaques, and even jackals, leopards, and cobras in their suburbs, in consequence of rapidly reducing dog populations through sterilization in the more enlightened communities, and elsewhere through the combined effects of extermination and great increases in motor vehicle traffic.

Policymakers in the developing world often seek for their cities the superficially animal-free appearance of a “modern” city that they see in Europe and the U.S., equating this with ridding themselves of rabies. But casual outdoor observation of European and U.S. cities by daylight is deeply deceptive. European and American cities support even more dogs, cats, and wild animals per thousand humans than the cities of the developing world. They have merely achieved a transition from hosting outdoor animals, seen in daytime, to hosting mostly indoor pets and nocturnal wildlife.

Motor vehicles, rather than any animal control strategies, appear to be the major transitionary agents. Motor vehicle traffic reduces street dog populations by killing dogs, obviously enough, but this is the least of the vehicular impacts, and is no different in effect from animal control killing. Busy streets also isolate dogs from each other, inhibiting reproduction. Most important, replacing urban grain storage for work animals with gasoline stations steeply reduces the numbers of rats accessible to dogs. Replacing work animals with cars and trucks also eliminates animal droppings from the streets, an important “filler” food for street dogs.

As street dogs disappear, ceding scavenging roles to raccoons and opossums in the U.S., and pigs and monkeys in much of the rest of the world, feral cats proliferate. The same factors affect the cat population, but cats are smaller, so are better able to survive on the remaining food sources, without canine competition. Cats are also better able to prey upon mice and rats who live indoors, and cats are able to spend their days away from traffic on rooftops or in crawl spaces, hunting by night.

If feral cat populations steeply diminish, as has occurred in the U.S. and Britain during the past 15-20 years through the introduction of feral cat sterilization programs, the habitat niches that the cats formerly filled are taken over by urbanized wild predators including coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats, hawks, owls, and eagles.

But neither dogs nor cats actually decline in numbers, as illustrated by comparing data collected by pioneering dog and cat population ecologist John Marbanks in 1947-1950, when canine rabies still raged in the U.S., to the findings of more recent studies. Sixty years ago, just after World War II, the mechanization of transportation and establishment of urban sanitation were about as advanced in the U.S. as they are today in Ethiopia, India, and much of the rest of Africa and Asia, as well as Latin America. Not surprisingly, Marbanks found that about 30% of the U.S. dog population were what we would now term street dogs, and about 30 million cats were what we would now term feral, a situation comparable to what we now see in the developing world.

Marbanks estimated that there were only 600,000 street dogs in the already heavily motorized Northeast, but were 3.5 million in the South and 2.3 million in the Midwest, the two most agrarian parts of the U.S. More than 20 years passed before the U.S. dog and cat populations were again studied in depth. By then, in the early 1970s, the U.S. street dog population had disappeared. The feral cat population rose in the absence of street dogs to a peak of about 40 million circa 1990, then fell with the advent of neuter/return to today’s levels of about six million in winter, 12 million in summer.

In the interim, the number of cars and miles driven in the U.S. had tripled. The pet dog and cat populations rose proportionate to the human population. The pet dog population increased by just about exactly as much as the street dog population declined. The biomass of dogs and cats relative to human population remained almost the same.

Canine rabies was already close to elimination, but not because there were fewer dogs. Rather, canine rabies had nearly disappeared because unvaccinated street dogs had been replaced by an almost equal number of vaccinated pets.

Carrying capacity

In effect, mechanization of transport and improvements in urban sanitation reallocated the carrying capacity of the human environment. Instead of supporting dogs and cats who lived directly off of refuse and rodents, the human environment evolved to support dogs and cats who lived on refuse that was processed into pet food, fed to them in human homes. This same reallocation of carrying capacity has occurred in western Europe, and is occurring now in eastern Europe, India, China, Ethiopia, and wherever else economic development is transforming former hubs of agrarian commerce into technologically developed modern cities.

Paving streets tends to eliminate feral pigs, since pigs need mud to wallow in. That tends to leave more habitat to monkeys, if free-roaming dogs disappear-mostly macaques in Asia, baboons in Africa. Macaques and baboons do not run from feral cats, bite more often and more dangerously than dogs, are capable of transmitting more deadly diseases to humans than any other animals even though they rarely carry rabies, can outclimb cats, and are often smarter than the public policymakers whose misguided ideas about animal control invite their presence.

Completely eliminating rabies from Addis Ababa and other major cities in the developing world would be a big job, but Larghi’s vaccination efforts in Latin America were bigger still. Such a program in Addis Ababa would appear to have public support, as the plan to poison dogs was not well-accepted, even among Muslims who told reporters-wrongly-that the Prophet Mohammed forbade keeping dogs as pets. “Dogicide is an act that should be condemned in the strongest words possible,” wrote Kassahun Addis of the Sub-Saharan Informer weekly newspaper.

Similar defenses of dogs have emerged around the world in recent years wherever dog purges have been waged or even rumored–even in nations with long histories of repressing dissent. Ahead is the urgent task of educating policymakers about urban ecology and more humane and effective methods of animal control, of which rabies control is part. Equally important is educating
policymakers about how to successfully enlist the support of pro-animal donors and foundations.

Governments have been handing off responsibility for animal control to humane societies by making heavy-handed threats to kill animals by cruel means for 130 years now, beginning in 1877 when the Women’s Humane Society of Philadelphia took over the Philadelphia pound to halt the practices of clubbing and drowning dogs and cats. Of note is that the response of the U.S. humane community included significant wrong turns, which actually delayed the eradication of canine rabies by decades.

American SPCA founder Henry Bergh resisted pressure to take over the New York City pounds, accurately perceiving that the job would sap the ability of the ASPCA to do effective anti-cruelty advocacy, but seven years after Bergh’s death the ASPCA did assume the pound job and held it for the next 100 years, killing more than a quarter of a million dogs and cats per year in the 1960s, mostly by gas.

Humane societies increasingly felt themselves compelled to take responsibility for animal control sheltering after policymakers discovered the persuasive effect of selling animals to laboratories. The American Humane Association, as the only national humane society in the U.S. before the mid-20th century, responded by urging humane societies to take animal control contracts–and to boycott compulsory rabies vaccination, as vaccine development and production were perceived as unacceptably cruel to laboratory animals and the sheep whose brains were used to make the early rabies vaccines. (The sheep brain vaccines were
long ago replaced in most of the world by vaccines cultivated in hens’ eggs.)

For much of the 20th century the chief occupation of U.S. humane societies was killing dogs and cats by the multi-million, in the names of rabies control and population control, while the moral vision and momentum of the early humane movement slumped into despairing self-isolation. The brightest outlook for the future offered by 1963 humane movement historian William Alan Swallow was not that either rabies or pet overpopulation could be contained, but rather that humane societies might take over the pet cemetery business.

As the numbers of impounded dogs and cats only increased, with no money available to subsidize and promote sterilization, many humane societies resorted to killing methods, such as mass gassing and decompression, that were not much less cruel, if at all, than the methods of the private animal control contractors they had replaced. The lowest point may have come when then-nationally prominent anti-vivisection evangelist Ann Brandt, now long forgotten, was arrested in the act of drowning cats in a barrel.

Much of the U.S. humane community is now out of the high-volume animal killing business, albeit seldom easily and often with considerable misgivings about returning animal control duties to municipal management. Yet the humane community has learned that while donors will not generously support organizations known for killing animals, they do contribute far beyond anyone’s anticipation 30 years ago to prevent killing through sterilization and vaccination. Among the best-known examples are the ninefold increase in donations experienced by the San Francisco SPCA in the decade after it went no-kill in 1984, and the explosive growth of the no-kill Best Friends Animal Society from marginal viability in 1990 into one of the largest and still fastest-growing humane organizations in the world.

Since the early 1970s, sterilization programs subsidized by pro-animal donors have helped to cut the numbers of dogs and cats killed in U.S. shelters and pounds from 115 per 1,000 Americans to 12.5. Belated humane support of vaccination meanwhile reduced canine rabies to the verge of extirpation within a decade of the late start, and completed the eradication with intensive
efforts wherever cases appeared thereafter. Now the developing world needs to learn from the U.S. experience–and, most critically, needs to avoid repeating the U.S. mistakes.

Building success

This is not an argument that humane societies should stay altogether out of doing animal control work. Indeed, humane societies have vital roles in doing the job effectively and kindly. The many highly effective Animal Birth Control programs operated by humane societies in India offer models for the world, along with similar programs in Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, and parts of eastern Europe. While many of these programs can be improved, they are clearly making progress in the right direction.

Humane societies should avoid assuming financial responsibility for impounding potentially infinite numbers of animals, which often leads to operating death camps. However, humane societies are much better positioned than public agencies, especially in the developing world, to offer sterilization, vaccination, and other lifesaving services, and to do public education.

The critical lesson to impart to policymakers is that extortion does not raise the resources that the humane community needs to do the work it can do best. Neither does impatience help small charities to grow into doing big jobs. Few if any humane societies in the developing world (or anywhere) have built sterilization programs faster than Animal Help, of Ahmedabad, India, but Animal Help built capacity for six years before it sterilized and vaccinated 50,000 dogs in 2006. Founder Rahul Sehgal frankly acknowledges that the time and practice was essential to subsequent success.

If the municipal officials of Addis Ababa want HAPS to help them purge the city of rabies and a perceived over-abundance of street dogs, they must help HAPS to build capacity and demonstrate, step by step, the potential for further growth. Even more important, the municipal officials of Addis Ababa-and every other city threatening to kill animals if humane donors do not intervene-must understand that donors will not contribute money if they fear that all the animals will be killed no matter what. Humane donors are continually asked to support worthwhile projects, in all parts of the world. Deciding which are most worthy of support, most donors will choose the programs that they perceive are most likely to achieve happy endings.

Programs under stress from unsympathetic governments tend to look like bad bets, no matter what their achievements, as the Bangalore humane societies Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, the Animal Rights Fund, Krupa, and Karuna can testify. The four charities’ internationally recognized ABC programs, cited as positive examples by World Health Organization chief F.X. Meslin, had eliminated rabies from their service areas and had brought the dog population down markedly before 2007.

This year, however, Bangalore city officials wrongly blamed the ABC programs for two fatal dog attacks, which occurred chiefly because the city government failed to stop butchers in areas outside the ABC program limits from dumping meat wastes in vacant lots–despite repeated warnings from the Animal Rights Fund. The officials’ attacks obliged the Bangalore humane societies to suspend their ABC work, and severely harmed their ability to raise funds to resume. Poor administration of the Bangalore municipal animal control program meanwhile allowed rabies to re-infiltrate the city.

Success builds on success. Successful humane societies can eradicate canine rabies worldwide and help communities in even the poorest, most remote places to achieve humane animal population control-but only when policymakers properly understand and contribute to the necessary preconditions.


4 thoughts on “How to eradicate canine rabies in 10 years or less

  1. This is a very thorough and well researched work and its implementation to address Karachi dogs issue is urgently needed. It would be great if this article could be translated into Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi , Pashto and other regional languages of Pakistan so that the entire nation can be benefited; Since the dog bite issue is not limited to Karachi only.
    I hope there will be some people who would volunteers to translate this wonderful article.

    Syed Rizvi
    San Jose, CA, USA

  2. In 2006 in Addis raies vaccine productionwas still by use of neuro tissue culture . Has that b een replaced by human diploid cell cultured vaccine?

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