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Tackling rabies in the Philippines

Rabies has the highest case fatality rate of any disease and each year more than 55,000 people are killed by the disease, over half of them children under 15 years.

Most deaths occur in poor rural areas (mainly in Africa and Asia) and the Philippines is in the top ten countries worldwide for cases of rabies. Now the island province of Bohol in the central region of the country is leading the way in showing how the disease can be prevented.

In partnership with the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC), the provincial government has implemented a rabies prevention and elimination program called ‘The Bohol Rabies Project’. In July, experts from across the globe were invited to come and hear about the project’s success. The community used to lose around 10 people a year to rabies. But since co-ordinated action has been taken, no cases have been reported in either humans or dogs for two consecutive years.

The program firstly began to raise awareness about the disease through the community, particularly among children. Youngsters are at higher risk of contracting rabies since they are generally less wary of animals. Once bitten, the incubation period of the disease is typically 4-6 weeks after exposure and it’s essential a vaccination is given as soon as possible after any bite. An education campaign was launched by the program, with messages about the disease integrated into the curriculum for primary school children.

Children were also taught how to take care of their dogs. Dogs can contract the disease and then spread it to cattle or pass it on to humans by biting them. However, a 2-dollar vaccination prevents a dog from contracting rabies. Therefore, a mass vaccination and dog registration program was set up in Bohol. Over 70 per cent of dogs were treated and the island also worked on the better management of strays. Finally, teams of medical staff set up clinics offering post-bite medication. This increased the number of facilities able to give life-saving vaccinations by five-fold. The Asian co-ordinator of GARC told the Guardian “treatment after a dog bite is essential – if you don’t receive a vaccine after being bitten by an infected dog, you will most likely die”.

Because of the success of the program run in the Philippines, experts from across the globe are now examining how they might use the developed education modules in their own countries. They are also able to see how an integrated approach across different government departments – e.g. health, education, agriculture and animal health – as well as a combined and co-ordinated effort by a local community, can successfully eradicate deaths from rabies. 

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