Rare outbreak of rabies in Sarawak could have originated from Indonesia's Kalimantan, says Malaysia health minister

Malaysia's State Veterinary Services Department acting assistant director Dr Sajem Jinim vaccinating a cat belonging to Erillena Hyacinth from Kampung Paon Sungai Rimu Bakung in Serian.
Malaysia's State Veterinary Services Department acting assistant director Dr Sajem Jinim vaccinating a cat belonging to Erillena Hyacinth from Kampung Paon Sungai Rimu Bakung in Serian. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PUTRAJAYA (The Star/Asia News Network): The recent rabies outbreak that claimed the lives of two children in Serian, Sarawak, is believed to have spread to the state from infected dogs in Kalimantan, Indonesia, said Malaysia's Health Minister S. Subramaniam.

Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said Malaysia was declared free of rabies in 2012, but the recent cases could have been imported from neighbouring countries due to porous borders.

"We suspect that it is from Kalimantan as there is a large rabies outbreak there," he told a press conference after the Cabinet meeting here on Wednesday (July 5).

"In 2015, infected dogs from southern Thailand crossed over and spread the virus to dogs in Perlis. Cases were then detected in Kedah and as far as Penang.

"It shows that our borders are not only porous to humans but also dogs," he said, adding that steps have been taken to contain the spread of the rabies virus.

The victims, a six-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother, succumbed to the disease on Tuesday. A third victim, a seven-year-old child, is in critical condition at the Sarawak General Hospital's intensive care unit.

A total of 68 people were bitten by dogs at the five villages in Serian between April and July 1, with no new incidents reported since then

Health authorities have vaccinated pets from the five villages, while residents helped to round up stray dogs.

On efforts to handle the outbreak in Serian, Dr Subramaniam said the 68 dog-bite victims in the district would be closely monitored for symptoms.

He said they had already been vaccinated but would still be monitored closely because the rabies virus replicated slowly, over the span of months.

"That is why we screened those who had been bitten as far back as April," he said, advising those who show signs of rabies to seek immediate medical attention.

He gave an assurance that the ministry has sufficient vaccine for those in the affected area while the Veterinary Services Department would be responsible for vaccinating pets and stray dogs there.

Sarawak Local Government and Housing Minister Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian said besides dogs, carriers included bats and rats.

If parents know that their children were bitten by a dog, they should seek treatment immediately at the nearest hospital, he said.

"Watch out for strange behaviour such as the sudden fear of water because an infected person will be afraid of water.

"And parents must remind their children to be careful when playing with dogs," he said.

Other symptoms include fever, abnormal behaviour and aggression.