AGA IN ACTION
"Dogs of War": Animal Health Clubs champion rabies prevention to protect livelihoods and lives in Sierra Leone
Roland Suluku’s Big Idea
The civil war in Sierra Leone, which ended in 2002 after raging for 11 years, decimated the public and animal health services in the country. There are just 70 qualified physicians for a population of over 6 million people; and only five qualified veterinarians in the country – all of whom are due to retire in the next few years, without potential replacements – and 21 livestock officers to assist them. This lack of capacity in veterinary services has had a significant effect on the prevention and control of animal diseases potentially fatal to both animals and humans, in particular for rabies, which is endemic in Sierra Leone.
During the civil war, many people left their homes when rebels entered their town or village, also leaving behind their dogs. But the dogs continued to look for their owners, finding them in their hiding places. When the dogs barked, rebels were able to locate the owner and kill or abduct them. Unfortunately this led to owners having to kill their own dogs to avoid such a fate. Those dogs that ran away became strays in towns and cities, scavenging for food, becoming infected with diseases, such as rabies, and exposing more people to dog bites and the threat of rabies. So today, the high number of cases of dog bites and rabies infection is due to these dogs: the Dogs of War.
There has been no national rabies control programme since before the civil war – almost 20 years ago – and with the limited veterinary infrastructure, disease reporting, diagnostic equipment and even transport for staff, together with lack of availability of rabies vaccines, rural communities are increasingly vulnerable to the disease, children in particular – which may contribute to Sierra Leone’s infant mortality rate – the highest in the world.
In such an environment, it is thought that many rabies deaths are not recorded, and can often be wrongly attributed to malaria or other diseases: thus, the full impact of the rabies threat can be better known with enhanced disease surveillance and reporting. The tragedy of rabies and its impact upon lives and livelihoods occurs often through a simple lack of knowledge of prevention and/or treatment measures. There is considerable scope then for improving reporting and reducing risk through clear messages and provision of information to those most at-risk.
Rabies affects people’s lives in various ways. In addition to causing human death – in Sierra Leone rabies is always fatal for humans and domestic animals – animal death has a major impact upon livelihoods and food security: the death of a family dog takes away an important partner in hunting, herding activities and guarding property; when cattle, donkeys and other animals die from rabies, a valuable and often irreplaceable asset for farming and transportation is lost; and the loss of an animal means the loss of an income generator and provider of nutrition.
Roland Suluku, a Lecturer in the Animal Science Department of Njala University in Moyamba District, 219 kilometres from Freetown – an area with no government extension and no animal health services and few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active on the ground – decided to do something about rabies and other animal diseases. Following a FAO/IAEA fellowship training in Pretoria, South Africa in 2007, where he studied molecular diagnosis of animal diseases, including rabies, Mr. Suluku returned with a desire to tackle the problem, initially by organising activities to mark World Rabies Day in 2007. Roland was already aware of the high number of unexplained animal deaths (for example, over 2,000 goats and sheep died between February-March 2008 in Pujehun/Bo District in the south of the country), and suspected that peste des petit ruminants/rabies may be the cause: particularly in view of numerous anecdotal reports of human deaths following dogs attacking livestock or people, and then dying. At this time further communication began between the university and FAO.
Roland pondered on how best to pass information on the threat of rabies to the wider public in the shortest possible time: “I thought about the potential that schools have for quick, easy transmission of information in communities. In towns and villages where there are schools, every five or so houses has a school-going child. These children can pass information to their peers, parents and neighbours, and this gave me my idea”.
With the support of university management, which wanted to make its own commitment to the recovery of the livestock sector, and to use World Rabies Day 2009 as the basis for an outreach programme to “bring the university to the doorsteps of the community” (according to Professor Andrew Mboma, University Deputy Vice Chancellor), Mr. Suluku and university colleagues established Animal Health Clubs (AHCs) in five schools in the villages of Mokonde, Mosongo and Bongamena, near the university.
The clubs provide basic training for teachers and university students on prevention and control of zoonotic diseases, animal husbandry practices, and general health education including nutrition, sanitation and environmental hygiene. The information is imparted to school pupils and university students, together with training and mentoring by university staff. In turn, pupils and students share the information with their families, friends and neighbours and mobilize them to take action to prevent rabies and other diseases.
Njala University student Saidu Bamayange, aged 28, from Mokonde, says: “I heard about rabies on World Rabies Day in 2009, and also on the radio. It’s a big problem in Sierra Leone, as many people have died from rabies, and livelihoods have been destroyed. I wanted to do something about it – to help protect my family and my community against rabies, so I joined the Animal Health Club at my university.”
Saidu explains “We do awareness raising on rabies through drama, music, skits, radio discussion programmes, and community surveys in the Njala community and surrounding villages. We teach people how to control and manage their animals, in particular dogs, and the environment in which they live. We also tell them how to treat dog bites. This is very important: we tell people to immediately wash the bite area with soap and copious amounts of water for 15 minutes, as this will reduce the risk of infection.”
Saidu continues “The work has really helped me, for example, in learning how to give first aid treatment to patients who have been bitten by rabid dogs. I look forward to continuing this work even after my studies, by remaining in the club and promoting its ideas.”
Against all the odds, with limited support and with almost zero resources, Roland and his colleagues have overcome major challenges to initiate Animal Health Clubs. This commitment and the inspired idea behind it have a huge potential for replication in Sierra Leone and other developing countries.
FAO is committed to encouraging and supporting the Animal Health Club initiative and request additional donor support. Such support will improve the way farmers deal with animals, help to prevent disease, and develop the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers and peri-urban/urban animal-keepers: “The Animal Health Clubs have united our village, helped us to support ourselves, and after the years of tragedy have given us hope that we had not believed possible” (Mokondo farmer, Sierra Leone).