||10 June 2012 07:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
It's Friday morning, the 1st of June, and we're following a convoy of vehicles from the Department of Agriculture. A team of animal health technicians has just been briefed and we're heading into the hills Bergville and Winterton near the Drakensberg.
They're armed with vaccines in an attempt to halt the deadly outbreak of rabies that began late last year and has been spreading at an alarming rate ever since.
Dr Hilgaard Muller (Veterinarian): "Now it's an explosion of rabies; we don't think there's ever been such a big outbreak that I know of."
There have been more than 50 cases of rabies in this area so far this year and Dr Hilgaard Muller, the local vet, has euthanised five rabid dogs since February
Dr Muller: "There was a bull that actually trampled a child to death in the Ladysmith area. Because that is what happens - your tame animals become wild. And then there was a horse in Winterton area that was put down by the Estcourt vets - that was also confirmed rabies."
Janine Muirhead (Winterton resident): "It was a matter of minutes and the rabid dog came through the fence and it just attacked our dogs that were sleeping out that evening."
In the early hours of Sunday the 20th of May, a rabid dog breeched the Muirhead's fence on their farm in Winterton.
Janine: "It had already attacked our dogs through the fence, having bitten the little puppy, and she ran back to the laundry."
Gavin Muirhead (Winterton resident): "And this little... probably 15kg... hound is just pouncing on everything ."
Once a mammal is rabid it spreads the virus through its saliva, so Janine and Gavin couldn't even let their own dogs in because they knew that their Cocker Spaniel and Ridgeback had already been bitten.
Janine: "It was so, so angry. Whatever moved... it just launched itself onto it."
Even their 70kg boerboel was no match for the rabid animal. During the commotion Gavin got his gun and managed to get to his car.
Gavin: "I'm reversing back up into the main yard and it appears in the headlights right in front of me. So I opened the window, put the gun out the window and let it have it."
Fortunately the Muirheads' dogs had been vaccinated, but there's a two-week window before they can relax.
Dr Muller: "Once a dog is rabid it normally dies within two weeks, so it doesn't keep on spreading rabies the whole time."
The Muirheads, along with many others in this community, are on a course of preventative injections.
Dr Muller: "We've had cases of horses now, sheep and cattle. And then obviously the human risk - there are human cases confirmed and I think we are going to see more cases of human bites turning over to rabies."
Winterton resident Sam Dungan was bitten by her dog Brodie while taking him to the vet.
Sam Dungan (Winterton resident): "I arrived at school and I quickly got the kids out that car and went to close the door and she [dog] tried to jump out of the car. And I pushed her back in and she bit me."
Sam realised it could be rabies and rushed off to get treated.
Sam: "I started driving to Bergville, and from Winterton to Bergville it's about 20 minutes. And three times I stopped the car and got out because she was trying to bite. You know the middle console of your car? She was taking chunks out of that."
She was treated with immunoglobulin injections and Brodie was put down. But residents say it should never have reached crisis proportions.
It's been around since biblical times and one of the first vaccines ever was against this deadly disease. Rabies is preventable, but if you haven't had your annual shot and the saliva from a rabid dog gets under your skin, statistically there's no chance of survival
Dr Grant Lindsay (Anderson's spokesperson): "It will progress from flu-like symptoms, headaches, muscle ache, backache and then progress into agitation, dysphagia - battling to swallow."
Just over a month ago Dr Grant Lindsay's holiday was cut short when he got an urgent call from a family friend, whose 29-year-old son, Graeme Anderson, a farmer and extreme canoeist had rabies symptoms.
Dr Lindsay: "And then right at the end, often aggression, extreme agitation, paranoia and really bad hydrophobia - they cannot [tolerate to] even hear water run or drink water."
Friends have rallied round and even started a Facebook page for Graeme, who featured on Carte Blanche four years ago tackling the mighty Maranon River in the Amazon. He contracted the disease after picking up a stray dog in Underberg.
Dr Lindsay: "It was ill. He fed [and] watered it twice a day. It licked him a lot and then he came home and it had died. They buried it."
Being a hands-on type of farmer, Graeme had cuts on his hands.
Dr Lindsay: "To get rabies like that you need a fresh defect in the skin and I'm sure that's what happened."
Rabies affects the nervous systems in mammals. In Graeme's case, the virus had to travel up the nerves in his arm before reaching the spine and ending up in his brain. From there it targets the salivary glands and is passed on through saliva.
Dr Lindsay: "But when you see somebody you know who is a healthy person who is rabid... it's the worst thing that I've ever seen."
Graeme was treated with the Milwaukee Protocol, the first person outside of America to be treated with this experimental rabies remedy. It's saved one life in the States.
Dr Lindsay: "You just lock the brain out and stop the ravages of the virus."
It's an induced coma treatment to protect him from his brain. The immune system is then meant to produce antibodies to fight off the virus.
Dr Lindsay: "He's maybe eight metres from us now."
Rabies has been endemic in KZN for nearly four decades and is mainly spread through the dog population. Last year there were two fatalities in KZN. This year there were two deaths from rabies in May alone, one of them an eight-year-old boy.
Dr Tembe Sikhakhane (Dept Agriculture Veterinary Services): "They groan like animals. It's not a nice thing to see... and for a young boy, it's terrible."
According to KwaZulu-Natal's State vet Dr Thembe Sikhakhane the disease has been more than halved in the past three years - from 473 animal cases down to 185 per year. But already there are 125 positive cases of rabies in the province - with nearly half of them in the Winterton and Bergville districts.
Dr Sikhakhane: "We have a problem and we are doing something about it."
But the general feeling is that not enough was done from the outset. In the past, inoculation programs carried out annually by the State vet have kept rabies under control. Nicky Hendriks, who works at a local vet, was bitten by a rabid dachshund which in turn had bitten eight other people.
Nicky Hendriks (Veterinary Assistant): "So there's definitely something being done, but, you know, in my opinion, if they just did it from the beginning there would not have been a problem."
Andalie Vermaak (Winterton resident): "For the last five... six years nothing happened."
Andalie Vermaak has been farming in Winterton for almost 20 years. They're on the alert after three rabid dog attacks on their pets and livestock - and they're worried.
Andalie: "Especially our labourers - they walk to work through the rural areas to work and we've told them they must carry knobkerries now."
In the past the State vet would inoculate their dogs and give them certificates... but no longer.
Andalie: "So if you don't do it yourself through the vet and pay it - it doesn't happen."
Dr Sikhakhane: "Having a dog as a pet is not a Constitutional right; it's a luxury. People have to be responsible for their pets."
Dr Muller: "I think it's the owner's responsibility, but we must remember we are sitting with a vast rural area here where a lot of people haven't even heard of rabies."
Many poor people keep dogs for hunting and security. And lots of them have never been vaccinated.
Dr Muller: "I've clients bringing their dogs in taxis to the practice and they have never ever vaccinated their dogs and they are five... six... seven years old."
In mid-March the Department of Agriculture launched a five-year rabies elimination project, partly sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organisation. They received US$3.5-million, which Themba says is sufficient.
Dr Sikhakhane: "At the moment in our stores we have 200 000 doses of vaccines that we have in syringes. Now what we have to do is get out those syringes and vaccines and get them into the dogs."
Better late than never... We spent the morning with his team. Sirens and loudhailers call people to bring their pets. Most of the dogs we saw lacked primary health care - like this dog with severe mange [on screen].
Owners are given vaccination certificates and the process was handled efficiently. But we were surprised that technicians weren't wearing gloves and that they didn't advise this man, who'd been bitten, to get a rabies shot. They did, after we pointed it out.
Nicky: "If I can ask everybody just to be careful; if they see any stray animals, not to go near them. Just phone the local vet or phone the State vet and just tell them that there is a suspected rabies case and just get it out the way."
Sadly, Graeme's treatment was unsuccessful and on Thursday he was declared brain-dead and his life support was switched off. His family hopes that his death wasn't in vain have been partly realised with an announcement by the KZN provincial government of a million rand awareness campaign. The World Health Organisation has also added R16.5-million to the provincial government's reaction unit to inoculate all dogs in affected areas.
Dr Sikhakhane: "And if we can get 80% of the dogs, the problem will be gone."
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