In an effort to mitigate rabies infections, Yangon authorities perform dog culls. But is this the only answer? Words by Loren Lee Chiesi and Pamela Tan.
Stray dogs in Yangon make up as much of the city’s neighborhood communities as night markets, teahouses, and longyi fabric stores. Yet daily complaints about street dogs recently prompted U Min Aung, an officer of the Animal Wellness Department of the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), to tell Myanmore that dog culling “will be inevitable.”
A budding reticence towards stray dogs is tied to the fear of rabies, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is endemic throughout Myanmar and is on the rise. There’s good reason to fear rabies.
Once an infected victim shows symptoms of the disease, it’s fatal. Dr. Christoph Gelsdorf of the International SOS Clinic at Inya Lake described rabies infection as “total neurological devastation.” While actual transmission of rabies from dog bites to human is rare, Gelsdorf emphasizes that every patient arriving at his clinic with an animal bite has to be treated as if there is an exposure to rabies.
According to a 2014 WHO report, an estimated 600,000 people in Myanmar seek medical treatment annually for injuries incurred by dog bites. Statistics provided by U Min Aung state from 2014-2015, over 1,000 people from 10 townships within West Yangon visited government clinics for rabies vaccinations. There were two verified rabies fatalities.
In an effort to mitigate rabies infections, the YCDC routinely performs dog culls, targeting specific townships with poisoned meat in an effort to control stray dog populations. Culls are effective in the short-term population control, however, there is no substantial evidence supporting the efficacy of dog culling to counter the rabies virus. What culling does decrease is the amount of residents who contact the YCDC with complaints about stray dogs, out of fear or nuisance.
However, not all Yangonites support dog culling. The Yangon Animal Shelter (YAS) was established in 2012 as a reaction to the culling process, which founder Terryl Just sees as inhumane and an ineffective means of quelling strays. The mission of YAS is to offer protection, shelter, medical care, food, and socialization to as many strays as the Hlegu township-based compound can accommodate.
A 2017 article by The Guardian posits 120,000 stray dogs in the city. Currently, YAS is home to about 550 dogs, all of which have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. In her seasoned opinion, Just sees the spay/neuter-vaccinate-release method as the most practical way to combat instances of rabies and the climbing stray population. She’s not alone in her stance.
Thailand-based animal protection group Soi Dog has had notable success limiting rabies infection rates and canine population control in major Thai cities like Bangkok and Phuket by using this protocol of identifying dog packs, spaying the females and neutering the males, and then vaccinating the dogs against a battery of common canine diseases such as parvovirus and rabies.
When done properly, this course of action creates herd immunity against transmittable infections, like rabies. But in order to achieve herd immunity, Just says, 70 percent of the dog population must be immunized.
“There have been foreign animal rescue groups that have offered to step in and train local workers and fund spay/neuter-vaccinate-release efforts, but they will not do it in cities that cull,” she added.
The logic is that culling actually works against the herd immunity efforts. The randomized poisonings do not target rabies-infected dogs, but strays in general, even dogs that have been vaccinated and fixed, thus debasing tactical vaccination plans. Even still, YAS volunteers are not alone in their concern about the culling of strays. Some Buddhist groups have protested the culls, asserting that the killing of dogs by poisoning goes against Buddhist tenets of non-violence.
In spite of such bleak information about the spread of rabies and the plight of stray dogs, there are effective strategies that everyday Myanmar residents can take to prevent rabies infections and abate the rising stray dog populations. Gelsdorf urges people to start with prevention and get vaccinated against rabies. International SOS Clinic offers a vaccination series for charge, as well as many local general practitioners at township medical offices.
“Rabies is 100 percent vaccine preventable,” said Gelsdorf. As for stray dogs, the YAS encourages donations made directly to the shelter. Donation funds cover spay, neuter, and vaccination costs as well as shelter maintenance and materials needs, dog food, and veterinary care.
As YAS volunteer Nathalie Mathiasen said, “We are all working as a community here—the dogs, the residents, the volunteers, medical professionals, and the YCDC. We all want the same thing: safe and healthy communities for our friends and families. If we work together, humanely and with funding, rabies does not have to be feared [in Yangon].”
Photos by Lorcan Lovett and Leo Jackson.