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September 21, 2017

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Fear should be the last thing driving rabies policy

Since the first rabies case in decades was discovered in early July, 89 ferret-badgers and one house shrew have been confirmed as carrying the virus. The government is continuing to provide free vaccines to Chiayi and Taitung counties, targeting pet dogs and cats in mountainous areas there. More than 2.27 million more doses of the vaccine will be imported by September.

These are all necessary moves, since vaccination has been proven to be the most effective way to stop infections. However, most locals are not familiar with the disease due to the fact that Taiwan had been rabies-free for decades, so among the reasonable policies of the central and local governments are some which aim only to minimize fear in the public.

The Council of Agriculture (COA) announced on Friday that 14 healthy and lively beagle puppies will be chosen to be bitten by rabid ferret-badgers in order to find out if the virus discovered in Taiwan is transmittable to dogs.

If a puppy develops rabies symptoms like anxiety, irregular drooling and aggressive behavior, it will immediately be euthanized for anatomical study.

Yeh Lih-seng (葉力森), a professor of veterinary medicine at National Taiwan University, however, said that as it is already proven that the rabies virus can infect any warm-blooded animal, sacrificing the lives of 14 innocent puppies is completely unnecessary.

The COA has defended itself, saying that according to other countries' research methods, it is necessary to conduct research on how the strain discovered in ferret badgers would affect dogs. It's not a strong defense — it is actually more important to have more pet and stray dogs vaccinated.

If it is proven that all warm-blooded animals can be infected with rabies, it is unnecessary to intentionally take the lives of 14 innocent animals. Even if there was something to learn from such an experiment — which there isn't — the sample size is too small for the experiment to be validated.

Another policy that also triggered dispute was that of the Gukeng Township Office. It offered a bag of rice for every stray cat or dog turned in. News of the reward met strong opposition, with the local government slammed for trading animals' lives for a bag of rice.

Gukeng later scrapped the policy and issued a press release claiming that officials had actually asked people to capture the stray animals in order to give them rabies vaccinations. The office said it drew up the policy because it did not have enough officials to go around and inoculate all the stray animals in the area. Moreover, the central government had not distributed enough human-use rabies vaccinations to the Gukeng Township Office, making residents there even more anxious about the virus.

This chain of events shows that local governments and the central government are not working well together, and that this is driving more people to unnecessarily panic about the rabies threat. Many people, particularly seniors, only have access to sensationalist and misleading media reports about how the death rate for those who contract rabies is 100 percent. The government should work to decrease the level of unnecessary fear about rabies by targeting people who are elderly and who are not receiving correct information about the disease.

Since Taiwan had been rabies-free for so long, most people are not familiar with it and have started to develop many misunderstandings about it. It is the government's responsibility to promote a correct and clear perception of rabies as well as come up with policies that doesn't stir fear. Missteps like those of the COA and the Gukeng Township Office not only sacrifice the lives of innocent animals but also endanger people. As a country that — with only a few others — made the list of rabies-free areas for decades, Taiwan definitely has the ability to win the battle against rabies again, but in order to achieve this policies cannot be affected by public fear or pressure.

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