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Rabies cases falling in Mumbai

Mumbai has, in recent years, revised its approach to tackling rabies within the city. This new strategy has borne fruit as the number of disease cases has fallen to an all-time low.

Stray dogs, rabies. Aliaksandr Mazurkevich
Stray dogs on the streets of New Delhi. Rabid dogs are contributing to the spread of rabies in India.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Mumbai’s strategy in disease prevention was to cull the vast numbers of stray dogs wandering the streets. An estimated 450,000 dogs were killed during this campaign. This prolonged campaign was not only costly, it seemingly did not seem to notably reduce either dog numbers or rabies cases.

Studies noted the inefficiency of this strategy, instead noting the efficacy of vaccination campaigns among the animals themselves. In addition, sterilisation programmes for strays as well as increased surveillance was found to have the capacity of local eradication of the rabies virus.

This strategy has been adopted within Mumbai, and disease cases have plummeted. Stray dogs are simply a fact of life within the city — they also happen to be one of the primary vectors for humans to catch rabies. With this in mind, campaigns targeting the animals have been deemed to be the most effective means of reducing human infections.

In collaboration with animal welfare organisations such as In Defense of Animals India (IDA India) and Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD), the local dog pounds were used to sterilise and vaccinate stray dogs in the surrounding area. These dogs were then placed back into the areas they were found in after receiving a nick in their ear as an identification mark.

Due to the territorial nature of the stray dogs, the vaccinated animal would fend off other dogs, ensuring the only animals remaining in the area were more likely to be vaccinated. This in turn reduced infection rates in the surrounding area. 

Addressing the rabies issue is a serious concern nationally due to the mortality rate of the disease. In 2017, rabies killed every individual it infected in India. The prospect of a disease with a 100 percent mortality rate is a grave issue, though the disease is entirely vaccine-preventable.

Evaluating and addressing the disease at its root cause — the animals that spread the virus — may be the most effective strategy in terms of both outcomes and cost effectiveness. The numbers speak for themselves. Mumbai has reduced rabies deaths to zero in the last two years, with only a single death occurring in 2017.

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