KUALA LUMPUR – It took Malaysia 13 years to attain rabies-free status and now, no thanks to the recent outbreak of the disease in the northern states of the peninsula, the government will have to work doubly hard to get back the status.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) had declared Malaysia as rabies-free in 2012, following the last outbreak in 1999.
Former Zoo Negara Assistant Director and resident veterinarian Asso Prof Dr S. Vellayan said the recent outbreak was a “shocking and sad” episode for the nation as it had put in a lot of effort to earn the rabies-free status.
“The question now is, when will the OIE declare Malaysia rabies-free again. To regain the status, much work needs to be done by the (health) ministry and the relevant authorities and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), and even the public,” he told Bernama recently.
The Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) had declared Perlis, Kedah and Penang as rabies-infected states last month after stray dogs caught in the states were tested positive for the virus that caused the disease.
The viral disease was first detected in Perlis sometime in mid-August before it spread to Penang and Kedah the following month.
The rabies virus can be transmitted to humans when a rabid dog – or other animals like bats, foxes, rats and monkeys – bites a human or when its saliva comes into contact with a wound, abrasion or scratch.
PROMOTE AWARENESS ON RABIES
Claiming that the authorities had created “unnecessary paranoia and fear” among the public over the rabies scare, Vellayan said they should, instead, focus on carrying out campaigns to educate the people on the disease and encourage them to have their pets vaccinated against rabies.
“What’s more important now is to create more awareness on not only rabies but also matters like animal welfare and responsible pet ownership,” he said.
Vellayan, who is Coordinator of Laboratory Animal Facility and Management at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Universiti Teknologi MARA’s Puncak Perdana Campus, was also against the mass culling of stray dogs, which was carried out by the states concerned as a measure to contain the spread of rabies.
“The culling exercise was neither practical nor effective. A mass vaccination campaign would have been more effective.
“Dogs suspected of being infected should be caught and tested for rabies. If they are not dead within 10 days and don’t show any symptoms of the disease, they can be quarantined, vaccinated and released,” he said.
As of Oct 18, Penang had culled 2,224 dogs; Kedah 2,002; and Perlis 302. A total of 1,701 dogs in Penang; 4,117 in Kedah; and 1,838 in Perlis were vaccinated as of Oct 18.
On Oct 9, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced the lifting of its Rabies-infected Area Order 2015 and said there would be no more culling of the strays.
MORE PEOPLE REPORTING DOG BITES
Meanwhile, according to statistics from DVS, as of Oct 1, a total of 11 dogs which had bitten people and 31 dogs kept under surveillance in the three states have been tested positive for rabies; there has been no increase in the numbers since then.
Following the rabies scare, the three states saw more cases of dog bites being reported. Between Sept 17 and Oct 1, a total of 178 cases were reported, with the number rising to 265 on Oct 9 and 312 on Oct 18.
Penang Health Services Director Datuk Dr Zailan Adnan told Bernama the increase was mainly due to the rabies alert, which compelled clinics and hospitals to report the cases to the health authorities, and not “because there were more dogs out there biting people”.
She also said that the rabies outbreak had not caused any panic and that the public has been facing it calmly.
Dr Zailan, as well as Kedah Health Services Director Datuk Dr Norhizan Ismail, said all the victims were being monitored closely and so far, none of them have shown any signs of infection.
Any person who has been bitten by a dog must, if possible, try to wash the wound within 15 minutes before rushing to a clinic or hospital for anti-tetanus and anti-rabies shots, she said.
The rabies vaccine will have to be administered in four doses over a two-week period.
Rabies, if not treated early, will lead to the inflammation of the central nervous system, resulting in death.
Dr Zailan said the incubation period between contact with the rabies virus and onset of symptoms ranged from 10 days to six months.
“How soon the symptoms manifest depends on which part of the body is bitten. The risks are higher if a person is bitten on the head or neck, compared to the legs,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Dr Norhizan said early symptoms of the viral disease include fever, body ache, headache, weakness, muscle fatigue and inablity to control limb movements.
“When the virus attacks the nervous system, the patient will exhibit anxiety and suffer from insomnia, as well as hallucinate and become confused, mentally disturbed and aggressive.
“When the infection gets to the serious stage, the patient will suffer from hydrophobia (abnormal fear of water) and aerophobia, (abnormal sensitivity to the movement of air) and will find it difficult to breathe and swallow water as the muscles concerned are not functioning properly,” he said, adding that prompt treatment could save the lives of more than 90 per cent of victims bitten by rabid dogs.
He added that his department had issued an alert to all government and private hospitals and clinics in Kedah following the detection of rabies in the state.
And, in view of the virus’ rather lengthy incubation period, health workers have been told to monitor all dog bite victims and ensure that they come for their follow-up checks, he told Bernama.
The government hospitals and clinics have also been told to report all dog bite cases to the district Veterinary Services Office, which would in turn notify the state-level office for further action to be taken.
Vellayan, meanwhile, said an animal that has bitten a human or another domestic animal must undergo a mandatory 10-day quarantine period.
He said the quarantine was set at 10 days because a rabies-infected animal could only transmit the disease after it has developed the clinical signs.
“Usually the animal will die within 10 days of developing these signs. If it lives beyond the 10th day, it means that it was not shedding the rabies virus at the time the bite occurred.
“But if the animal dies before the 10th day, a post-mortem must be conducted to confirmed the virus. If the test is positive, the human bite victim will have to receive post-exposure vaccinations,” he said.
Vellayan said if an unvaccinated pet has been bitten by a wild animal or has received a suspected bite wound of unknown origin, it must undergo a six-month quarantine to completely rule out rabies before it is allowed to come into regular contact with humans or other animals again.
Vaccinated pets, on the other hand, could forgo the quarantine even if it was bitten by a wild animal, he added.