Rabies Scare ‘Normal’ this Year

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK Veterinary officials have urged pet owners and farmers to vaccinate their animals against rabies, since what appears to be a kudu pest is actually a rabies outbreak. Although there has been confusion among mostly farmers regarding the deaths amongst kudu populations in northern and central Namibia, with the disease being referred to as kudu pest, a private veterinarian, Dr Ulf Tubbesing says; “There is absolutely no doubt this is an outbreak as it occurred in 1977-85, when it caused severe mortality amongst the kudu population.” Apart from kudus, eland species are also at risk considering that some game farms have reported high mortality rates in this species, says the veterinarian. A rabid domesticated animal becomes wild showing unexplained aggression, whereas wildlife become strangely tame by straying into towns, gardens and homes. Recent weeks have seen kudus straying into towns due to the same problems. Official figures of rabies cases in 11 wildlife species stand at 115 as from January to date, with government figures saying that this was normal for any given year. Of the 11 species that have been reported to the veterinary officials, cattle have the highest number of reported cases at 39, followed by kudus with 28 cases while dogs have 26 reported cases. This week, the National Epidemiologist in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, Dr Alec Bishi, said the figures pointed to a normal situation with rabies that happens around this time of the year. Compared to other years such as 2002 and 2001 when the country recorded 164 and 156 cases respectively, Dr Bishi said this year is a normal situation like the outbreak some three to four years ago. The Namibia Professional Hunting Association also said there was no outbreak. But Dr Tubbesing said apart from killing some rabid kudus on his farm, many other farmers have complained about the situation, especially in the vicinity of Windhoek. “Over the past two years I have personally observed how this disease diminished the once very healthy kudu population on our farm near Windhoek to a mere fraction of its original number,” he said in a short overview to his clients, which was made available to New Era. “Lots of cases are being reported. It’s quite a big problem,” he said. He said official figures were low because many people who are sure of a rabies case do not go through the hassle of taking the infected animals to the laboratory for tests. “Their behaviour is typical of rabies. Kudus are running into farms, they do not fear people, I can’t see why it’s not an outbreak,” he said. Dr Bishi also said that the only cases that the ministry is able to deal with are ones that are reported. The areas that have reported cases are East Caprivi, Gobabis, Grootfontein, Hereroland West, Kaokoland, Karasburg, Karas, Kavango, Okahandja, Omaruru, Outjo, Windhoek and the central northern areas. Apart from cattle, kudus and dogs, other species involved are six goats, nine cats, two jackals, one mongoose, sheep, pigs, hyenas and horses. Bishi called on all pet, wildlife and livestock owners to vaccinate their animals especially where there are many jackals, where their animals would be bitten and infected with the virus, which has a mortality rate of 100 percent. Tubbesing said that in a kudu population rabies starts with an individual being bitten by a rabid animal and is then spread through communal grooming and group feeding from the same bush or tree, a social behaviour of the species. “Since in kudu the portal of infection is in very close proximity to both brain and salivary glands, it appears logical that both the course of disease in an animal and the spread of rabies within a kudu population is far quicker and more dramatic than in most species,” said Tubbesing. He also explains that not many other species are infected as much as kudus because most carnivores on commercial farmland tend to occur as solitary animals or in small groups which make them less susceptible to an ‘outbreak’ of rabies. The ministry only vaccinates pets, while private veterinarians assist farmers to have their livestock and wildlife vaccinated. Vaccination in kudu species is however costly, as Tubbesing says such a campaign could be executed within one week at a cost equivalent to the trophy fee of around 8 kudus. Oral vaccines are not feasible in Namibia as is the case in Europe because of climatic conditions, the vastness of the country and the associated costs, which are exorbitant. Another option could be a capture-and-release pro-gramme with the aid of a helicopter where the estimated the population can be herded into a boma where they could be vaccinated and marked to avoid duplication. Rabies symptoms are aggressiveness, lack of fear for human beings, getting close to dwelling places, production of lots of saliva, chasing after moving objectives. In later stages, the animals are paralyzed, unable to drink and eventually die.