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Communication can't be overlooked in rabies fight

The last time there was rabies in Taiwan — August 1959, according to the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE — Fidel Castro was months into his leadership of Cuba, Alaska and Hawaii had just become the 49th and 50th states of the U.S., NASA had only picked its very first astronauts (the Mercury Seven) and the USSR's Yuri Gagarin was still two years away from becoming the first man in space. “Ben Hur” was the blockbuster movie of the year and The Beatles were not even formed yet.

The reoccurrence of the disease after so many years has taken the public by surprise. As the Taiwanese people are still digesting information about rabies, the authorities are coping with the increased inspection workload as alert people are sending in more possible cases. Tsai Hsiang-jung, director-general of the Council of Agriculture's (COA) Animal Health Research Institute (AHRI), pointed out that they are working to beef up their screening manpower from eight to 14. But that will take around three weeks, as newcomers need to first be inoculated. In the meantime, the institute has to prioritize and “hang on” until reinforcements arrive, as Tsai put it.

As of press time, Taiwan has 11 confirmed cases of rabies, according to the COA's Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine. All of these cases involve ferret-badgers in rural areas. A house shrew that attacked a woman in Taichung was found to be carrying lyssavirus, a genus of viruses that include rabies. A preliminary test showed that the house shrew was infected with type 3 lyssavirus and not rabies, which is type 1. More tests are needed to confirm that finding. Tsai pointed out that there is no precedent of rabies-infected house shrews anywhere in the world. This is relatively good news, as it suggests that the disease has yet to spread to populated areas. House shrews are commonly found in cities and they could pose a serious threat if the disease jumped to them.

While the disease is still limited to ferret-badgers, the public is already concerned with the fate of Taiwan's dogs and cats, both those that are pets and those that are strays. The government has vowed to keep the number of human rabies cases at zero but has yet to announce a comprehensive response or guidelines for the disease and popular animals in Taiwan. Local media have cited the OIE and other experts as pointing out that culling stray animals is not the best way to prevent rabies. Vaccination and stray animal management are more effective ways to eradicate the virus, the OIE said in a report.

The government must act quickly to communicate its rabies-fighting policies to the public before worries lead to insensible fear. A local newspaper reported yesterday that five stray dogs were poisoned in Nantou, a county where five confirmed cases of rabies have been reported, in a suspected reaction to the rabies news. Some local governments are taking the initiative. Taipei and New Taipei said they have been communicating with stray animal caretakers and will ask them to help with the vaccinations of strays. Both cities have no plans yet for large-scale roundups of stray animals but will ramp up patrol of hot spots where large packs of stray dogs are sighted.

As with any dangerous infectious disease, the handling of rabies is as much about eradication of the virus as it is about well-planned communication with the public to both heighten awareness and to lower unnecessary worries. The authorities must work fast to contain the disease, to beef up testing and inoculation capabilities, to manage local stray animals and to educate the public. In the long term, Taiwan should also take firm steps to ensure that rabies will not return to the nation. This means more inspections of imported and wild animals, better vaccination regimes and better public awareness campaigns.

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