Bangladesh has the highest per capita rate of human deaths from rabies than any other country in the world. According to government statistics, 100,000 people were bitten by a dog in 2009, resulting in at least 2,000 deaths from rabies. Over two thirds of those who died were children under 15 years of age. Now the government, in partnership with local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), is organising the first countrywide census of dogs, to be followed by a mass vaccination and sterilisation campaign.
The census was launched in December and will be carried out by the Department of Livestock Services as part of a public health initiative to control rabies. One veterinary officer who works for the Dhaka City Corporation says that stray dogs are the main carriers of rabies. The dogs contract the disease through the breeding season and then spread it to cattle or pass it on to humans by biting them. The programme will begin in Dhaka and will then be rolled out across the country over a period of five weeks. The census phase is designed to provide an accurate assessment for the scope of the task. Once the count of dogs is finished, a report will be published in March which will outline the extent of the vaccination and sterilisation needed to control the disease.
This follows a similar approach taken by the Indian city of Jaipur, which managed to reduce human deaths from 500 cases of rabies in 2000 to zero in 2010. This reduction was achieved by a massive sterilisation campaign of dogs through spaying and neutering, covering 70 per cent of the canine population. Previously Bangladesh had tried culling dogs, but experience has shown this approach is much less effective than using birth control techniques. The new, more animal-friendly approach adopted by the Bangladeshi government is supported by the NGO Obhoyaronno (Bangladesh Animal Welfare Society) and technical support is being given by the Gujurat-based Humane Society International (HSI) in India. According to the World Health Organisation, the majority of the 25,000 annual deaths from rabies across South Asia occur in India (with its huge population of around 1.1 billion); 19,000 Indians die from the disease every year. However, using more advanced sterilisation techniques, India still has the disease under better control than Bangladesh.
In a country where poverty is endemic – around 40 per cent of the population in Bangladesh live below the upper poverty line (the ‘absolute poor’), most people live in the kind of conditions where they can ill afford to worry about animal welfare. However, when it is explained the process of sterilising animals helps prevent deaths from rabies, the animal welfare charities find people understand the need for such a campaign. The NGO Obhoyaronno hopes Bangladesh will eventually become a ‘no-culling’ nation.