Once bitten, twice shy

opinion March 22, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

2,845 Viewed

Widespread ignorance about rabies is helping spread the disease, abetted by a flawed and restrictive law



The country’s sixth death caused by rabies this year was reported on Tuesday. The victim was a 14-year-old girl in northeastern Buri Ram province. Just as sadly, the latest victim’s mother blamed the girl’s untimely death on ignorance about rabies. The mother said the teenager was bitten by a puppy late last month, but since her family “found no wound, but only some scratch”, there was little concern. The girl died last Saturday, and her death was confirmed by the Department of Disease Control as being due to rabies.

Earlier this year, five human deaths related to rabies were 

reported in Surin, Songkhla, Trang, Nakhon Ratchasima and Prachuap Khiri Khan. 

What many people find alarming is that, just three months into 2018, the disease has already killed six people. If the problem continues at this rate through the year, the number of rabies casualties could exceed those of recent years. There were 11 rabies-related human deaths last year and 14 in 2016.

Observers have blamed this year’s spread of rabies on substandard vaccines imported from Spain and a law that does not allow local administrative organisations to 

procure the vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration has recalled and destroyed three batches of imported rabies vaccines that were deemed substandard. And this could have contributed to the ongoing outbreak. Since the beginning of this year, almost 400 cases of rabies infections in animals have been confirmed, covering most of the country but primarily in the Northeast and South.

Also, the Rabies Act allows only the Department of Livestock Development to procure vaccines for public use. Local administrators have blamed this legal restriction for the fact that they could not acquire sufficient vaccine for use this year.

Rabies can infect any mammal, not just pet dogs and cats. However, there is a widespread misunderstanding in Thailand that this is a disease carried only by dogs. Its name in Thai translates as “mad dog disease”. Although pet dogs and stray dogs tend to be the main carriers, rabies-related deaths in humans  have in the past also been attributed to contact with cats and cattle. At least one rabies-related death this year was caused by an infected cat’s scratch.

Sadly, many victims and their families ignore the scratches of dogs and cats. In some cases, such ignorance has led to unnecessary death. Ignorance and misunderstanding about rabies increase the risk of fatalities – a circumstance that could be avoided if people were better educated about this disease.

Up to 60 per cent of the 11,369 people participating in a recent survey by the Public Health Ministry wrongly declared that rabies is curable. Thirty-four per cent of the respondents did not know that death is extremely likely if an infected animal bites a person – unless they have recently been vaccinated or are quickly vaccinated afterwards. Inaccurate knowledge about the virus has brought fatal results when people were bitten or scratched by rabid animals but did not receive the vaccine until it was too late.

The authorities should make sure that rabies vaccinations blanket any outbreak area. And maybe it’s time for us to consider curbing the number of strays, by sterilisation, to help cut down the risk of rabies epidemic in the future. Also, the relevant agencies need to increase their efforts to overcome all misunderstanding and ignorance related to rabies that could lead to more fatalities in the future.