Rabies outbreak continues to plague southern Bhutan: A persistent challenge

The southern regions of Bhutan are grappling with a persistent and concerning surge in rabies cases, raising alarms among veterinary authorities and residents alike. The latest incident occurred in Riju village of Umling Gewog in Sarpang, where a cow suspected of being rabid on 26 December succumbed to the virus.

Currently, all nine dzongkhags along the border are high-risk areas for rabies outbreaks.

According to the Regional Veterinary Officer, Dr Lungten, immediate measures were taken after the infected cow’s demise. “After the death of the cow, we made sure to bury it,” he said.

The regional veterinary hospital promptly informed the community about the possibility of rabid dogs roaming in the vicinity, and emphasised on the need for caution. As of now, there have been no further reported cases of the virus spreading among animals or humans in the area. Officials remain vigilant, especially considering the absence of eyewitness accounts of the dog bite or the dog that may have bitten the cow. However, concerns were raised about an unnotched dog in the village, as most dogs in Bhutan are vaccinated and notched for identification.

The on-site investigation at Gelephu Veterinary Hospital confirmed the presence of the rabies virus through a rapid test. To prevent potential contagion, the cow’s carcass was swiftly buried, and thorough sanitization measures were implemented in the surrounding area.

The possibility that the disease was introduced by dogs from across the border has heightened anxiety. Veterinary experts are urging residents in the affected village and neighbouring areas to remain vigilant against potential rabies exposure.

Similarly, the Samtse Regional Veterinary Hospital reported six cases of rabid dog bites in humans and 5 in stray dogs. The Regional Veterinary Officer, Dr Deezang, recounted an incident on the 24 December involving a rabid cow near Samtse town. A rapid-antigen test confirmed the presence of rabies, although the cow showed no sign of bite marks. Subsequently, a rabid dog, displaying symptoms of the virus, bit multiple humans and stray dogs the following day. The rabid dog was killed by a local to prevent further harm.

Dr Deezang revealed the epidemiological link between the rabid cow case on 24 December and the subsequent rabid dog incident, indicating that the same dog was likely responsible for both. Furthermore, a case in Tashicholing Gewog 21 days ago involved rabid dogs biting a cow and its calf, both of which were under observation, however, the calf succumbed to the rabies virus.

On 28 December, another incident occurred when a 10-year-old was bitten in the AWP area, and rapid antigen testing confirmed rabies.  5 people were also bitten by a rabid dog in Samtse. As of now, there are no additional reported human bites, and the two dogs involved are under observation.

Officials have assured the public that comprehensive disease control measures are in place and the situation is being closely monitored. Residents are advised to exercise caution and report any suspicious animal behaviour promptly.

To gain insight into the collaborative efforts aimed at tackling the issue, we reached out to the Program Director of the National Centre for Animal Health. In response, he highlighted global commitments, stating, “We have a global call for the elimination of dog-mediated human diseases by 2030, a commitment shared globally.”

He shed light on collaborative efforts at the regional level, including joint vaccinations with India. Bhutan has sterilised a significant portion of its dog population, created awareness during the rabies vaccination day, and conducts free annual vaccinations for stray dogs, establishing a buffer zone.

The program director emphasised that, due to these vaccination efforts, rabies cases in dogs are not flaring up significantly, although few cases still occur. Plans are in place, and the competent team is briefed and reassured by the success of previous vaccination programs.

As Bhutan continues its battle against the persistent rabies outbreak, concerted efforts, public awareness, and collaborative regional initiatives remain crucial to mitigating the impact of this deadly virus on both animal and human populations.

Authorities remain committed to the ambitious goal of eliminating dog-mediated human diseases by 2030, highlighting the importance of sustained efforts in the face of this ongoing public health challenge.

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