Rabies viewed as a perilous situation in Namibia

Niël Terblanché

Under the theme ‘All for One, One Health for All’, an event to commemorate World Rabies Day was organized to intensify awareness and underscore the importance of preventative measures against this fatal zoonotic disease, which can affect both animals and humans.

Calle Schlettwein, the Minister of Agriculture, Water, and Land Reform, articulated the significance of public education to prevent rabies from spreading, particularly amongst pet owners.

He said the incurable viral disease strikes the central nervous systems of all mammals, including humans.

It is transmitted mainly through bites from infected animals, primarily dogs, carrying the rabies virus in their saliva and brain. This disease manifests in abnormal behaviour, aggression, excessive salivation, and difficulty in swallowing, culminating in paralysis and death. Rabies remains notifiable under the Animal Health Act 1 of 2011.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rabies claims a life every nine minutes worldwide, with children under 17 years old constituting 40 percent of the victims.

In Namibia, wildlife like kudus, jackals, and bat-eared foxes are also succumbing to this disease. Alarmingly, horizontal transmission allows the disease to spread through an entire herd via one individual’s saliva.

The minister cautioned hunting and farming communities to be vigilant as the disease can spread further when other animals consume an infected animal.

Schlettwein stressed that rabies is 100 percent preventable through mass vaccination of dogs, which is widely regarded as the most cost-effective strategy.

He indicated that since 2016, Namibia has significantly reduced human rabies deaths from an average of 26 to 5 cases annually, thanks to the National Rabies Control Strategy launched in 2015 and mass dog vaccination campaigns vaccinating about 100,000 dogs and cats in one year alone.

Namibia’s strategy, the first in Africa, endorsed by the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) in 2021, aligns with the global goal to eliminate dog-mediated rabies by 2030.

The Rabies Control Program focuses on increasing vaccination coverage to at least 70% in 8 regions of the Northern Communal Areas, regarded as Rabies hotspot areas.

The program has received substantial support from the Namibian Government, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and WOAH.

The commemoration of World Rabies Day also saw the launch of Namibia’s first rabies awareness video, a collaboration between several ministries and supported by the Germany Federal Ministry of Economics and Cooperation.

“This educational tool marks a pivotal milestone in Namibia’s commitment to eliminating rabies,” Schlettwein said.

Schlettwein stressed the urgency of wider engagement and cooperation amongst all stakeholders in controlling dog-mediated human rabies nationwide.

He praised the role of schoolchildren in bringing their companion animals to vaccination points and acknowledged the strong national leadership, improved surveillance, and the One Health Approach involving various ministries and stakeholders in the fight against rabies.

The minister said that while Namibia continues to make positive strides in rabies control through national strategies and awareness campaigns, the battle against this fatal disease is far from over.

He called on Namibians to uphold their responsibility as pet owners, to be vigilant about wildlife, and to seek immediate medical attention if exposed to potentially rabid animals, thereby working collectively towards a rabies-free future.

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