Vietnamese called on to quit eating dog meat amid rabies outbreak

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The demand for dog meat has prompted concern over rabies, as more than a hundred people in northern Vietnam have been bitten by infected dogs in the past two months

A dog suspected of carrying rabies that was killed after attacking several dogs belonging to a resident of Hanoi's Soc Son District on August 23. Experts have called for improving vaccination coverage, controlling the illegal dog trade and abandoning the practice of eating dog meat to control rabies in Southeast Asia. Photo by Phan Hau

Authorities in an outlying Hanoi district have set up special taskforces  to hunt and catch and kill stray dogs after at least 117 people were bitten by those infected with rabies.

Nguyen Thi Cam, a resident in Soc Son District's Bac Son Commune, said a stray dog, possibly from a nearby province, wandered by her house, attacking her five-year-old granddaughter on June 29.

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"I chased it away with a stick. But it returned several hours later and bit three other people before running away," she said.

"It looked like a mad dog with red eyes. Its hair stood up on end and it was drooling saliva."

Following increasing reports of dogs with rabies in Soc Son District over the past several months, experts have called for improving vaccination coverage, controlling the illegal dog trade and gradually banning the trade of dogs for meat to eliminate the transmission of rabies to humans.

But in light of a recent outbreak there, many experts doubt that Vietnam will meet its target of eliminating rabies by 2020 set earlier this year by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

In recent weeks, dozens of people have been bitten by stray dogs in Soc Son, which is adjacent to Thai Nguyen Province's Pho Yen District. Many of the dogs have tested positive for rabies.

According to the ministry's Animal Health Department, more than 8.8 million people were bitten by dogs allegedly infected with rabies from 1991-2010. More than 3,500 of the cases resulted in fatalities.

Between 1991 and 1996, rabies killed an average of 200-300 people annually. There were 110 fatalities in 2011 and 85 last year.

Rabies, a virus transmitted through saliva, causes acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and is almost always fatal if not treated early.

The disease kills about 55,000 people a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, which said that children under 15 are the most common victims.

Soc Son authorities reported that there have been no further cases of humans being bitten by dogs since August 23. All victims have been vaccinated against rabies, while local vets are vaccinating the local dog and cat populations and spraying decontaminants.

Pham Quang Ngoc, a local official, told Vietweek on August 26 that the taskforces have killed 25 stray dogs suspected of carrying rabies.

Traditionally, Vietnamese families have raised dogs to guard their homes or for food. According to the General Statistics Office, there are around 10 million dogs nationwide.

Van Dang Ky, head of epidemiology at the Animal Health Department, said the current rate of vaccination for dogs is only 40 percent, but is expected to reach 70 percent in 2015 and 100 percent in 2020.

Dogging the borders

The Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) held a conference in Hanoi from August 23-24 to discuss solutions to rabies in the region.

The conference sought to address the illegal transport of dogs for commercial purposes between Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. 

ACPA was established by the Change for Animals Foundation, Humane Society International, Animals Asia, and the Soi Dog Foundation.

Tuan Bendixsen, the Vietnam director of Animals Asia, said the key to controlling rabies in the region is cooperation between the region's four governments, as scientific studies have shown it only takes one dog with rabies to start an epidemic.

The best method to control rabies is to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the dog population in each country, he told Vietweek, adding: "At present none of the four involved countries [has] met this standard."

Bendixsen called for better management of the dog population in each country, and better control over the movement of dogs both domestically and internationally.

"At present the illegal dog trade from Thailand to Vietnam via Laos and Cambodia presents a big potential risk of rabies outbreaks because these dogs (estimated between 200,000-500,000 dogs per year by Vietnam's Department of Animal Health) do not have rabies vaccination certificates or veterinary health certificates as required by Vietnam's quarantine regulations," he said.

Dogs can fetch up to US$10 in Thailand, but go for around $60 when served in restaurants in Vietnam, CNN reported in June.

Deepashree Balaram, campaign director for the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, told Vietweek that Thailand has banned the export of dogs for commercial purposes, while Laos and Cambodia may fill in consumer demand in Vietnam.

Abandon the habit

With a growing concern that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries' goal of eliminating rabies by 2020 is unreachable, experts have called on people to abandon eating dog meat.

John Dalley, vice president of the Phuket-based Soi Dog Foundation, said dog meat is commonly eaten throughout the world during times of famine, but the practice usually stops afterward.

"There are no reports of dogs being eaten in Vietnam before 1940. It is believed that the practice was introduced by Chinese-trained military personnel during the French and American war years and has remained," he told Vietweek.

He said Vietnam banned poultry imported from China because of the risk of avian flu and should also ban the import of dogs from regional countries.

"Rabies causes far more fatalities than avian flu and therefore it is essential to ban imports of unvaccinated dogs into Vietnam whether for meat or pets."

At last week's ACPA conference, Pornpitak Panlar of the Department of Disease Control under Thailand's Ministry of Public Health said: "About the dog meat trade, we cannot change culture or habit, but what we should do is stop the smuggling of dogs. Vaccinations and dog population management are also crucial."

However, many experts said it is necessary to put an end to the habit of eating dog meat rather than solely controlling the trade and improving vaccination coverage.

Lola Webber of Change for Animals Foundation estimated that 13-16 million dogs are consumed in Asia each year.

She said authorities must seize dogs and implement tough penalties to send a clear message to illegal dog traders that this activity will not be tolerated.

"It is worth highlighting, however, that this is not a debate about culture - this is an issue of human health," she said.

"No country in the world has explicitly legalized the trade of dog meat for human consumption."

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By Vietweek Staff, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the August 30th issue of our print edition Vietweek) 

(KHANH AN contributed to this report)

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