Education programmes save lives from rabies in India

September 2017

Eight-year-old Deepak Raikar* was playing near his home in Guirim, India, when he was bitten by a stray dog that was carrying rabies. Thanks to a school programme, Deepak knew what to do and took quick action that saved his life.

An educator explaining dangers around rabies in an entertaining format to school children in Goa, India
An educator explaining dangers around rabies in an entertaining format to school children in Goa, India

Despite the pain, Deepak washed the wound with soap for 15 minutes and asked his family to take him to a doctor immediately. He knew that he would need 5 injections after a dog bite and that post-bite vaccinations prevent hundreds of rabies deaths annually.

"I am very grateful that my son got immediate help after being bitten by a rabid dog,” says Deepak’s father. “I was at work the day I received the call so my brother took my son to the doctor where first aid was given. It was at that moment that I called Mission Rabies and was told to rush him to the hospital to administer the five injections. It was life-saving advice.”

The next day, on being reported, the Rabies Response team collected the dog, who tested positive for rabies.

Education is key to saving people from rabies

Rabies almost always kills humans once symptoms appear. However, many of these deaths can be prevented if people can obtain a series of post-bite vaccinations as soon as possible after they are bitten. The challenge is that many people do not know the risks of animal bites.

Deepak’s story illustrates the value of rabies education. In 2014, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, including International Animal Rescue, People for Animals Goa, South Goa Welfare Trust for Animals, Panjim Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), Goa SPCA and Goa Animal Welfare Trust joined hands with Mission Rabies to lead the fight against rabies. The objective: to make the state rabies-free by 2018.

The rabies education and awareness campaign in Goa has been highly successful. Today Goans, especially children, are more aware about suspected rabid dogs and of the risks of exposure to dog-bites. “One of our biggest achievements has been to educate children by visiting schools and teach adults on how to understand dogs better so they can avoid bites,” says Gowri Yale, spokesperson for Mission Rabies.

Awareness campaign

“Public engagement and education are essential to any sustainable rabies programme,” says Dr Bernadette Abela-Ridder, Team Leader, Neglected Zoonotic Diseases unit at WHO. “Simple messages that focus on bite avoidance, correct wound management and post-exposure prophylaxis as well as correctly washing dog-bite wounds and seeking medical help from doctors instead of local healers are crucial.”

The campaign in Goa is funded through a matched grant from the Government of Goa and the Dogs Trust. This has enabled a 24-hour rabies hotline for public reporting of suspected rabid dogs, as well as the vaccination drive across the state.

The Government of Goa has also set-up high-powered committees and district level mechanisms to oversee programme implementation.

Controlling rabies in dogs

During the initial six-month period in 2014, with the help of veterinarians, public health workers and volunteers, more than 20 000 dogs were vaccinated. Subsequent vaccination and sterilization campaigns, in 2015 and 2016, led to vaccination of over 180 000 dogs.

The campaign’s outreach has been impressive: over 1900 rabies education classes in more than 1600 schools reaching more than 500 000 children with information about rabies and dog bite prevention.

Commending the efforts of the Goa rabies control efforts, Dr Henk Bekedam, WHO Representative to India emphasised that rabies control in India necessitates greater inter-sectoral collaboration between human and animal health ministries, municipal bodies agencies and civil society within the One Health approach framework.

“Distilling lessons from states such as Goa would be critical to realize the vision of achieving a rabies free India by 2030,” he added.

Since increased rabies control efforts, reported rabies deaths dropped from 17 in 2014 to 5 and 1 in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

* Not real name