Rabies in Bali and the case of the poison meatballs
Yeah, it’s time to talk rabies again. Because, in case you’ve forgotten while you were worrying about the admittedly not-insignificant risk of rabies vaccination for your pets, almost 50,000 people die every year of this horrific disease.
But you want to know what would happen if rabies vaccine freedom reigned supreme in the “first world”? That’s right, we might start to look an awful lot like countries who club their dogs and put out poisons as a knee-jerk reaction to rabies control.
The clubbing case you probably heard about almost three years ago. That’s when China flipped over thirteen human rabies cases and ordered martial law against the canine species. Thousands of dogs were reportedly clubbed to death in one affected province.
This time it’s Bali, the Indonesian island nation better known in recent years for its Tamil Tigers and terrorism than for its pristine beaches. In case the terrorist travel advisories haven’t spooked the visitors yet, here’s another blow to its tourist trade: Bali’s government is currently suppressing a seven month-long outbreak of rabies with a tried and true routine. It’s baiting stray dogs with strychnine-laced meatballs.
Come on, now, we all know that nothing works like a neurotoxin to help differentiate a rabid animal from a poisoned one, right?
I can just picture it: panicked Balinese pointing to one after another seizuring dog wondering how in the world rabies got to this point on their formerly unaffected island. Next thing you know they’re killing off their neighbors’ pets along with their own children’s dogs in a frenzied act of anti-rabies desperation.
Bali’s first human rabies cases hit the news last September. Since then, a total of eight people have reportedly succumbed. This, for an island nation with no former history of rabies––and little understanding of how their rabies-free status changed, seemingly overnight––is a hard pill to swallow.
At the end of December, reports of dog culling by Balinese authorities hit the international news media. By February, a wide array of organizations were calling on Indonesia to end the poisonings. Rather than outright cull, they urged local authorities to adopt more appropriate policies to contain the spread of rabies. And if they must cull, they should cull humanely.
37,000 dogs have reportedly been vaccinated. But when you consider the official estimates of 230,000 dogs, that’s not anywhere near enough to stanch the bleeding. Of this population, Bali public health officials estimate that only 30% of dogs are domesticated and the rest are “wild,” though a more apt term would be “feral,” given the introduced nature of the species to the island.
Yet these statistics are highly disputed by those who question the methods by which authorities are willing to dispatch animals, “wild” or not.
Australian tourists are complaining at the sight of dead dogs on the beaches (which public health authorities are apparently now shooting in full view of the ogling public). Animal rights organizations are blowing up over the inhumane and often incomplete strychnine deaths. And many of Bali’s own residents are horrified over the indiscriminate nature of the culling.
In case you’re wondering, the concept of pets is alive and well in Bali. Some news agencies are reporting that 90% of “domesticated” dogs in Bali are considered pets, despite the common practice of allowing dogs to wander in and around homes. (The Balinese have little strict indoor dog culture as homes tend to be more open to the elements.)
No doubt, this rabies outbreak is a stressful condition for those whose dogs have suffered, including one Australian transplant who found her dog dead near her garden gate alongside a pool of vomit and a telltale meatball. But are our Westernized ways getting in the way of what’s right for an island ill-used to handling an undeniably horrific disease?
Culling may be what’s needed, as some public officials worldwide have counseled. But there has to be a better way, right?
After all, wild animal populations in the US get treated to meatballs, too––in our case with edible vaccines occulted within. Still, for a small island scared out of its wits, how could our slow science ever expect to convince?