AGA IN ACTION
"Dogs of War": Animal Health Clubs champion rabies prevention to protect livelihoods and lives in Sierra Leone
Animal Health Clubs are working, and a new generation of young people are becoming empowered
The Animal Health Clubs (AHCs) play a major role in promoting good animal husbandry practices, including assessing animal control bylaws, carrying out a census of all animals and pets in a village, registration of animals and pets, and encouraging awareness and enhanced knowledge of disease risk and prevention – in particular for rabies – including the importance of reporting suspected rabies cases to veterinary/public health services. Advice includes essential practices and skills, such as thorough washing of wounds after dog bites, and application of first aid, in order to delay or prevent the onset of the disease until the victim can reach a hospital or health centre for rabies post-exposure treatment.
The clubs are also empowering a new generation of students and schoolchildren. In a country of over 6 million people and just five qualified veterinarians and 21 livestock officers to assist them. The provision of new skills to a dynamic group of eager young people is vital in preventing animal diseases that wreck livelihoods and kill children and adults and to improve productivity of livestock.
Dauda Sheku Yillah, aged 28, a Njala University student from Lungi Town in Portloko District, says "Rabies is a very serious problem in my area, as many young children, especially those in pre-schools, have been bitten by dogs suspected of having rabies. Some of the children died and others suffered from madness. Most dogs that pass by have not been vaccinated against rabies and they are the major carriers in Sierra Leone".
Dauda continues "I became involved in the Animal Health Club in order to create awareness of animal diseases among the poorest of poor, including how diseases are transmitted, prevented, controlled and even eradicated. Through the club we are helping people to know about the different zoonotic diseases and carriers, to help people prevent and report disease outbreaks in their area, and to take care of animals and prevent them from contracting diseases. Being involved has increased my own intelligence in terms of the dangers behind animal disease, and the need for prevention and control. It also gives me the opportunity to interact with the community, students and lecturers."
Emmanuel Kovoma, from Mokonde is 11 years old, and one of six children in his family. Emmanuel became involved in the club in 2009 and is one of more than 50 child members aged between 9 and 11. He came to know about rabies after two people in his village died as a result of bites from infected dogs. Emmanuel is proud to be a member of the club and help to prevent such needless deaths. "I became involved in the Animal Health Club because my father has some chickens, goats and dogs and I love animals. I also realised the importance of them and of caring for them properly."
Emmanuel and his club colleagues use a variety of methods and activities to get their message across to peers, family members, village chiefs and community members: "We go to neighbours’ houses to give them advice, acting in dramas, feeding animals at home, and advising people to not treat animals badly." He continues, "What we do is useful to both people and animals and because of our messages people have made sleeping places for their animals, and now feed their animals with a proper diet. They have realized the value of animals and are also now aware of some animal diseases, such as rabies. My own family is now rearing animals such as goats, sheep, dogs, cats, chickens etc, with the help of the Animal Health Club. Being involved in the club has given me such hope for the future and after my education I would love to be a farmer involved in looking after animals."
The methodology of the Animal Health Clubs is enshrined in a memorandum of understanding (MoU), formulated by the people, and signed between the University Administration and village chiefs. The MoU defines and formalises the modalities for AHC activities in villages and demonstrates buy-in from communities, which has been vital for the success of the initiative.
The work of the Clubs recognizes the importance of the ‘One Health’ approach to prevention and control of emerging and re-emerging infectious animal and zoonotic diseases, which impact negatively on people’s well-being, safety and livelihoods, as advocated by FAO and partner inter-governmental organisations. Thus, public and animal health sectors, and other stakeholders work closely together to address life threatening animal and human diseases. Njala University itself has incorporated this approach in the development of the clubs, by bringing together the Schools of Agriculture (Animal Sciences and Home Sciences), Environmental Sciences, Technology, and Forestry and Wildlife. Mr Sukulu says "The idea is for example, that in the prevention of rabies, the medical sector and veterinary sector must work together. But at the same time, people need a balanced diet, good hygiene and a clean environment, to help their resistance to disease."
Rabies prevention and control is a public good, and policymakers at local, national and international levels need to be aware of the multi-dimensional impacts of the disease, and how it can be prevented and controlled. While the costs of animal vaccination and preventive care for bite victims (post-exposure prophylaxis or PEP) can sometimes be unaffordable in developing countries, initiatives such as the Animal Health Clubs are vital.
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).