Campaign to find low-cost system to tackle rabies

Tuesday August 27 2019

Dogs at a rabies vaccination centre in Kenya.

Dogs at a rabies vaccination centre in Mathira in Nyeri County, Kenya. Close interaction of human and animals often means that too often, diseases can spread from animals to humans and vice versa. PHOTO | FILE 

EVELYN LIRRI
By EVELYN LIRRI
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From locally made low-cost, electric-free vaccine storage, to a mobile phone surveillance system, researchers are developing new ways to deal with rabies in Africa.

Rabies is an infectious viral disease that spreads to humans through the bite of infected animals — especially dogs. Without quick intervention, the virus can move through the nerves into the brain, causing neurological damage and death.

About 59,000 people die from rabies annually, the WHO says. Most of these deaths could, however, be prevented if all dogs were vaccinated and services made available to people who get bitten by dogs.

But a weak health system across the continent, shortage of trained health workers and the lack of timely detection and response mechanisms present challenges for addressing elimination of the disease.

It is these gaps that researchers are trying to address through different low-cost interventions across the continent.

In Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad and Mali, Dr Prisca Andree Ndour from Afrique-One Africa Science Partnership for Intervention Research Excellence, under the African Academy of Sciences has been leading research on interventions that could eliminate the disease on the continent.

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“People are not aware of the dangers of rabies, that is why we are integrating the social dimension to understand the level of knowledge among the community, including attitudes of people when they are bitten by dogs,” said Dr Ndour.

In Tanzania, Dr Ndour said their research has demonstrated that a temperature-controlled storage device for keeping rabies vaccines cool under field conditions could be the solution to reaching more people and dogs with vaccination services in areas where there is no electricity and refrigeration services.

“Based on findings that Nobivac canine rabies vaccine can remain potent for over six and three months when stored at a fixed temperature, we used local knowledge to design and develop an affordable and practical tool which are heat-resistant and power-free,” said Ahmed Lugelo, a researcher on the project.

In Chad, researchers have been experimenting with the use of toll-free phone numbers to help communities report cases of people being bitten by dogs in a timely manner.

“Free calls improve the reporting rates of suspected rabies cases and access to care for the victims,” said Jean Nodjimbadem, who led the research into the use of toll-free numbers for rabies prevention.

For researchers in Ivory Coast, the one-health approach — where human and animal health sectors have been integrated to deliver services — is helping to increase awareness.

Awareness campaigns have led to vaccination compliance of 70 per cent compared with 55 per cent before the intervention.

Prof Bassirou Bonfoh, the director of the Afrique One programme says the one-health approach, which is being popularised by WHO, could help in the elimination of diseases beyond just rabies.

As it is, the one-health approach has been successfully undertaken among pastoralist communities in countries such as Chad where vaccination coverage had been high for animals. However, children were not covered by the available immunisation programmes.

WHO has set 2030 as the year for total elimination of dog-transmitted rabies in humans. Key in this plan is to ensure countries put in place interventions on dog bite management and mass vaccination to reduce the incidence of human deaths.