Air Guns And Vaccines: Why Can't Kerala Stop The Biting Dog Menace?
Kerala is no stranger to brutal attacks of stray dogs. The attacks have been increasing over the years, and so has the efforts of culling.
Animal Rights members stage a protest against the burial of thirty stray dogs in Kochi.
Last month, CCTV visuals of a stray dog attacking a 12-year-old in Arakkinar in Kozhikode district went viral. Nooras was taken to the hospital and is recovering at home now. It shocked many, but not quite the residents of Kerala. Just a day before the incident, five persons including two children were attacked by a pack of stray dogs in the village. On September 5, a 12-year-old girl died weeks after being bitten by a stray dog, despite having taken three doses of the anti-rabies vaccine.
Kerala is no stranger to brutal attacks of stray dogs that sometimes have led to deaths. The attacks have been increasing over the years, and so has the efforts of culling.
Days after the viral video of the 12-year-old being attacked, another video went viral of a man carrying an air-gun with him, accompanying some school children in Kasargod area. He told reporters that he was forced to carry the gun as his children and those of his neighbours stopped going to school fearing the stray dogs.
In 2020, there were five deaths due to stray dog bites. This year, so far 21 people have died following dog bites.
While the government has taken some measures- the latest one being vaccination drives— it has been struggling to control the menace of stray dogs.
Dog Bites In Kerala: In Numbers
A senior official from the state health department told BOOM that out of the 21 deaths this year, six had been given the rabies shot.
Data shared by the official reveals Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, recorded six deaths, the highest in the state. Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Kozhikode, and Kasaragod have not reported any deaths due to dog bites.
The Integrated Disease Surveillance Project (IDSP) document collated by the Kerala Health Ministry revealed that this year, till July, 1,81,541 dog bites were recorded, which is an exponential increase when compared to the data placed in the Indian Parliament.
According to the Parliament data, in 2019 and 2020, there were 81,407 and 81,118 stray dog bites recorded. In 2021, a little over 50,000 dog bites were recorded. But this year, data shows 95,000 cases of stray dog bites have already been recorded.
Kerala does not make it to the list of top 10 Indian states with the most strays, but it is the sixth state for the maximum cases of dog bites this year. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh recorded more stray dog bites this year than Kerala.
What Has Been Done In Kerala To Stop Biting Dogs?
The state government has plans to start a massive dog vaccination campaign in all district centres, train volunteers to assist vaccination drives, and plea the Supreme Court to kill infected dogs.
Kerala has also been identifying hotspots, localities that reported a monthly average of 10 or more dog bites between January and August 2022. The vaccination drive has been intensified focussing on these hotspots. The state's Animal Husbandry Department has so far identified 170 hotspots.
The state has also set up temporary shelters/cages to take ferocious dogs off the street (with arrangements for feeding and care).
Meanwhile, a special cleanliness drive has been initiated to tackle wet waste particularly meat waste in public places or wayside, which has been cited as one of the vital reasons that lead to congregation of stray dogs, and in effect more incidences of bites.
Besides, the state had also instructed escalation of pet dog registration (and vaccination) —local self government and committees have been asked to ensure this.
The incident following the media coverage by some of the local channels led to an escalated fear of dogs. The man who was seen carrying an airgun while escorting a group of children to school was booked by the police. There were also reports that stray dogs are being killed. But again, this wasn't shocking. Back in 2016, rising cases of dog attacks had resulted in killings of strays.
Jose Maveli, a self-branded "dog killer", had then started a campaign to encourage people to kill stray dogs. He has been charged with seven cases of cruelty against animals, but his campaign seemed to have worked. Gory pictures of people and local political parties killing dogs went viral soon after.
The man carried an airgun with him wherever he went. "I need it for self defence because there have been so many dog attacks recently. It just frightens dogs away. No big deal," he had told BBC in an interview then. Maveli said he had offered to pay Rs 500 every time someone kills a street dog; he admitted to paying 50 people.
Last Friday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the menace of stray dogs cannot be solved by killing them and such acts are unacceptable.
"Stray dog problem cannot be solved by killing the dogs. To overcome this problem, the scientific solution implemented by the government needs the support of the general public. We need to work together to solve this crisis," CM Vijayan said.
Why Is Kerala The Hotspot For Dog Attacks?
The problem isn't new and experts say there may be many reasons for it: The inadequate vaccination and sterilisation of dogs along with improper disposal of waste are cited to be the big reasons for the dog bite menace in Kerala.
Sangeeth Narayanan, Executive Member at Indian Veterinary Association (IVA), told BOOM that improper management of slaughter waste in the state and halting of Animal Birth Control (ABC), has led to a "dangerous" situation in the state.
"Protein-rich slaughter waste can even lead to a behavioural change of dogs. They are now aggressive too," Sangeeth said, adding that dogs hunt in packs making it difficult for an individual to get away, especially if they are children.
KT Balabhaskaran, Executive Director of Suchitwa Mission- clean drive mission of the Kerala government said that there are 38 poultry waste rendering plants in the state. He said that the government is planning to build plants to include slaughter waste too.
There are plans to set up more waste rendering plants across the state. "The waste meat rendered in plants are used as feed for animals," he said explaining the process. The official said that this will resolve the waste management crisis.
There's also a trouble with the way animals' birth control programme in Kerala have functioned.
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Sangeeth Narayanan, a veterinary doctor, said that having a long-term plan of birth control for animals can become a permanent solution to the menace of stray dogs.
In 2021, Kerala had to halt the Animal Birth Control (ABC) program following a court order, which experts like Narayanan cite for the increase in the number of stray dogs.
A community network of women called Kudumbashree was roped in to carry out the ABC program. However, last year after animal activists approached the court, the Kerala High Court ordered the LDF government to restrain Kudumbashree from performing ABC procedures on animals. The court had said that none of the organisation's personnel are qualified and that it was not recognised by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) for carrying out ABC procedures.
"One female dog and her babies can have over 67,000 puppies in a six-year period because a dog can have three litters a year with up to seven puppies per litter. When this is the case, how can we control the dog menace without ABC?" Sangeeth asked.
Currently, there's one ABC centre in each of the 14 districts of Kerala, but none of them are functioning following the court order.
Sangeeth said that they have proposed the government start one ABC centre for every two-block panchayats in the state and continue the programme for at least 15 years without a halt. "Only that can bring a positive result," he said, adding that killing dogs is not a solution.
The veterinary professional said that ABC was easily done on 70 percent of stray dogs in Kochi earlier and that is showing results too. "It is rare to see a stray dog in Kochi," Sangeeth said.
The government data also shows that, so far, there has been no rabies deaths in Ernakulam district, which includes the Kochi city corporation.
The Controversy Over Vaccines
The exponential number of dog bite cases - Nearly 200,000 bites till July and 21 deaths, including that of six people who had taken the rabies shot, have put the government on its toes, raised doubts over vaccine quality, and divided the state residents into: dog defenders and attackers.
Dr Anish TS, a doctor from government medical college in Manjeri, said that out of the 21 who died due to dog bite, six had taken vaccine. However, he said that they are not sure whether the initial necessary treatment, moments after the bite, was administered on them.
"Of the six, five were admitted before the symptoms were visible. But the sixth patient was admitted after he started to show symptoms," Dr Anish told BOOM.
Anish, however, pointed out that the survival rate of the ones who have taken the vaccine is high.
"There are two vital factors. Initial treatment like washing with water and administering immunoglobulin is important. The second one is the bite spot. If the victim has suffered bite on hand, neck and face, the virus will travel fast to brain, even if we administer the vaccine," Anish said.
The number of deaths despite vaccination has raised doubts among the public over the quality of rabies vaccines.
In July, media reports said that the rabies vaccine administered in the state was purchased skipping quality controls.
Following the media report, the Kerala Human Rights Commission (KHRC) registered a case against the state government's Kerala Medical Service Corporation Limited, the body entrusted to purchase medicines for the state.
"Yes, we have registered a case and have sought an explanation from the KMSCL managing director," a senior official at the KHRC confirmed to BOOM.
BOOM emailed the managing director of the KMSCL for a response. Despite several attempts to reach them, they did not respond.
When the quality of vaccine started being questioned, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced in the state Assembly that an expert committee will be formed to probe the quality and efficacy of the vaccine.
When Can Rabies Lead To Death?
Prasanna K S, Assistant Professor and Department Head of Veterinary Pathology at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Kerala, told BOOM that rabies death depends on the bite spot.
"Rabies virus travels through the nerves to the spinal cord and brain. As the disease spreads through the brain, people become confused and agitated, eventually leading to coma and death," Prasanna said.
Prasanna added that if a dog bites a person's neck or face, despite taking the vaccine, the time needed for the virus to reach the brain is short, and before the body develops immunity, the patient may suffer rabies death.
A 12-year-old girl who died in Kerala last month after being attacked by dogs had bites on her eyes. She had taken three doses of the vaccine and died before the scheduled date for the fourth dose.
So, What Is The Solution?
Anoop Chandran from People for Animals, India's largest animal welfare organisation led by Maneka Gandhi, said that with an increasing number of stray dogs in Kerala more incidents of attacks have also been reported. "But media has been blowing this out of proportion," he said.
"Several incidents are being circulated on social media- they are are old incidents or incidents that are not directly linked to stray dog bites; some of them are related to pet dogs," Anoop said.
The animal rights activist agreed with the veterinary professional and said that the only way to solve the stray dog menace is with the ABC program.
He said that culling is not a solution because "nature's law is such that when you eliminate a species something else will fill that vacuum".
In Surat, when stray dogs were killed, the city was overrun by rats, resulting in the plague, he said. "And contrary to popular belief rabies will not be wiped off by culling dogs, it will only shift to another species, a more vicious one perhaps or one which we cannot control. We cannot simply decide to wipe out a species and expect to have no consequences at all," Anoop added.
Meanwhile, on 14 September, hearing a petition, the Kerala High Court said that the state administration is obligated to protect the citizens from the attacks of ferocious dogs by identifying and containing such dogs and removing them from public places.
According to WHO, India is endemic to rabies accounting for 36% of the world's deaths.
The true burden of rabies in India is not fully known; although as per available information, it causes 18,000-20,000 deaths every year. About 30-60% of reported rabies cases and deaths in India occur in children under the age of 15 years as bites that occur in children often go unrecognised and unreported, WHO notes adding that rabies deaths in humans are 100% preventable through prompt and appropriate medical care.
In its recent order, the court directed the Kerala government to take steps to identify rabid stray dogs and remove them to a place of isolation and, if need be, by tranquillising them under veterinary supervision. The bench of judges also directed the government to provide effective and free medical treatment to dog-bite victims until concrete measures were put in place.
Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist and the author of Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf (Penguin, November 2021).
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