There are few things more vivid in my memory the day I met my first rabies victim. In a dark, airless room in rural Southeast Asia, some ten years ago, I heard a story so tragic and moving it changed my life forever.
The young man I met did not have long for our world. Just 23 years old, he recounted to me and the physician I was accompanying his story. Some years earlier, when he had been bitten by a dog, he had sought treatment with a local healer. This healer rubbed chili powder into the wound, uttered an incantation and subsequently saved his life.
The young man knew about rabies and was well aware that urgent treatment was necessary to save the life of anyone that gets bitten by an infected animal. He made a swift recovery and his faith in the healer was maintained.
That first bite was not infectious but it ultimately cost him his life. The next time he was bitten by a 'mad dog', the same healer's remedy was not effective because the dog really was rabid, his condition worsened, he quickly found himself admitted to an isolation ward in the local hospital. When we met him, he was lucid but he could not stand to have any air blowing on him, despite of the fact that the room was stifling hot in the middle of July. Rather than feel relief when the doctor fanned him, he clutched at his throat, gasping for air and begging him to stop.
I asked the doctor what would become of this young man, what would be the next steps taken to ease his pain and suffering but was sadly told that there was nothing that could be done for the patient and that he wold probably be sent home to die as the hospital had no facilities to treat rabies patients. As we turned to leave that dark airless room, the patient suddenly fell on his knees and begged the doctor to save his life.
This young man, along with the 70,000 other human rabies victims that die every year, did not need to lose his life. Rabies is a totally preventable disease and can be controlled for relatively little investment. This is what the Global Alliance for Rabies Control has been striving to do. For the last 8 years, it has worked throughout the world to increase educational awareness, improve rabies prevention programs within countries and empower local communities to do something about saving the lives of their own people against the most deadly disease known to mankind.
This year, the Alliance has launched a new photo program to celebrate the relationship between humans and their dogs and the mutual benefit of canine rabies vaccination. (Over 95% of all human deaths are caused by the bite of a rabid dog.) For most of us, our dogs are part of our families. The Alliance wants everyone to know that by vaccinating our dogs, we can not only protect them from contracting rabies, we will also protect ourselves and our families against rabies. This World Rabies Day is a good time to check the rabies vaccination status of our dogs, teach our children about the proper behaviour that accompany the responsibilities of having a dog in the family, maybe even donate some money to help GARC reach those populations where the disease is an ever-present danger.
Because we need to stop anyone needlessly dying in this way again.