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Towards rabies eradication in Tanzania

World Vet Day's theme this year is rabies, so what’s the Trust’s contribution to the eradication of rabies?  Suzanne McNabb reports back on her Trust funded research.

Rabies eradication in TanzaniaWith around 55,000 people dying of rabies every year across Africa and Asia – and almost half of them children – finding an effective means of controlling animal to human disease transmission is a global problem. 

In Tanzania, domestic dogs are used to protect the livestock and property that people depend on, but are also the main reservoir for rabies – a disease which also wiped out the Serengeti’s African wild dogs in the 1990s and reduced the local lion population. Mass vaccination of domestic dogs is a cost-effective strategy for rabies control, and makes a difference – evidenced, amongst other things, by the return of wild dogs to the Serengeti since vaccination programmes started. However, for the vaccines to be effective, dogs must be able to produce a sufficient antibody response to grant immunity. My area of research interest was to assess the welfare and health of dogs in developing countries and assess their immunological response to vaccination.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to take a small part in the annual mass vaccination programme of the domestic dogs in the Serengeti District of North West Tanzania. I approached the RCVS Charitable Trust for help and was granted £4,870 in order to assess the health and welfare of Tanzanian dogs being vaccinated, including developing a health and welfare index, measuring the immunological response of individuals to rabies, distemper and parvovirus vaccination and interpreting these results in relation to the health and welfare assessment. We undertook the rabies serology using traditional fluorescent antibody virus neutralization (FAVN) serology and also a newly-developed pseudotype assay, which will be developed as an easier and more convenient alternative to FAVN serology. Working under the shade of an acacia tree, and in front of an audience of children fascinated by the blood sampling and intent on trying out my stethoscope, brought new meaning to the word ‘challenging’!

The 194 dogs sampled were found to be in much better health than expected, and had better welfare indices than had been anticipated. All but three of the 123 dogs that we revisited for sampling three weeks after vaccination had responded to rabies vaccination – a 96.7% success rate. The results of this project should support the work of rabies vaccination programmes, as they show that vaccination of domestic dogs is effective. It is also interesting that these dogs exhibited better levels of health and welfare than expected, and this may be used as a benchmark for dogs in developing countries. There is obviously a long way to go, but the success of this programme in Tanzania shows that it is possible to work towards the eradication of rabies.

 “Mass vaccination of domestic dogs is a cost-effective strategy for rabies control, and makes a difference.”

Suzanne McNabb MRCVS