Bangkok acts to contain rabies outbreak

Six people in Thailand have died of rabies since the year began, spurring urgent steps to contain the viral infection amid a vaccine shortage resulting from alleged corruption.

The latest victim, a 14-year-old student from Buriram, about 400km north-east of Bangkok, died last Saturday after reportedly being bitten by a dog in late February.

The number of human deaths in just three months is alarming, said experts, when compared with full-year figures from last year, when 11 people died of rabies, and in 2016, when 13 people died.

The Thai authorities' measures include sending out mobile vaccinations teams that treat up to 800 stray dogs a day. Meanwhile, emergency response teams are prepped to locate rabies cases, and vaccinate animals within a 1km radius of the infection within 48 hours.

Mr Apai Suttisunk, director-general of the Department of Livestock Development (DLD), told reporters on Wednesday that the department was aiming to vaccinate over eight million stray dogs and cats, the main cause of the spread of the disease. He expects to treat 80 per cent of these by June.

"Over two million animals within a 5km radius of infections have been vaccinated so far," he said, as quoted by the Bangkok Post.

Bangkok and its surrounding provinces Chachoengsao and Samut Prakan have been designated outbreak zones for the virus, which has spread to 28 provinces nationwide.

Experts say a vaccine shortage and soaring canine numbers were behind the outbreak.

According to Professor Sanipa Suradhat of the veterinary microbiology department at Chulalongkorn University, the country's rabies vaccine programme was suspended in 2016 over a dispute about whether local administrative bodies were authorised to supply vaccines.

In the same year, the Food and Drug Administration recalled some stocks after substandard lots were found. The DLD has been dogged by corruption claims regarding the vaccines, which are alleged to have been supplied for the last 25 years by a single company linked to the wife of a senior department official.

"As a result of that probe and recall... vaccines in stock for the following years were affected even though orders resumed," Prof Sanipa explained.

The authorities are urging people to go for vaccinations if they are bitten. "We advise people to wash the wounds... and get a post-exposure vaccine within 48 hours," said Dr Wanthanee Wattana, deputy permanent-secretary of the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2018, with the headline 'Bangkok acts to contain rabies outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe