Bangkok scrambles to contain rabies after six deaths in three months

A Thai veterinarian injecting a dog with a rabies vaccine for free at the Small Animal Teaching Hospital of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, on March 19, 2018.
A Thai veterinarian injecting a dog with a rabies vaccine for free at the Small Animal Teaching Hospital of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, on March 19, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Six people in Thailand have died from rabies since the beginning of the year, spurring urgent steps to contain the viral infection amid a vaccine shortage from alleged mismanagement.

The latest victim, a 14-year old student from Buriram province, about 400km north-east of Bangkok, died last Saturday (March 17) after reportedly being bitten by a dog in late February.

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

Thai authorities have taken several measures including sending out mobile vaccinations teams that treat up to 800 stray dogs a day. Meanwhile, emergency response teams are prepped to locate infected animals and people, and vaccinate animals within a 1km-area 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.

Bangkok alone is home to more than 100,000 stray dogs, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), with seven rabid dogs detected so far. The capital city last saw a human death from rabies in 2016.

Experts say a vaccine shortage and the soaring canine population were the main reasons for the rabies outbreak.

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

In the same year, the Food and Drug Administration recalled some of the vaccine 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, there was a vaccine shortage, together with the suspension of orders, vaccines in stock for the following years were affected even though orders were resumed," Prof Sanipa explained. "And at the same time new dogs were born every single day."

Public awareness about the disease is also key, with the authorities urging people to also seek vaccinations if they are bitten.

"We advise people to wash the bitten wounds or where the animals lick with soap as much as you can, and get a post-exposure vaccine within 48 hours," says Dr Wanthanee Wattana, deputy permanent secretary of the BMA.

The Health Ministry has also announced that pet cafes should vaccinate all animals and customers if they are bitten or scratched and the cafes must "strictly maintain cleanliness in the cafe areas and the food served".