Cross-border strays keep rabies alive in Malaysia, says expert

A dog owner having her pet vaccinated in Kuching following a rabies outbreak in Sarawak in June. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: A medical expert says free and unmonitored movement of dogs across borders with neighbouring countries had led to Malaysia’s loss of its rabies-free status after only two years.

Dr Rafdzah Ahmad Zaki of Universiti Malaya said “the main factor for the re-introduction of the rabies virus was the movement of infected stray dogs crossing the borders.”

Rafdzah said statistics showed that most rabies cases in the peninsula were reported in states bordering Thailand, where rabies was endemic.

She said there were relatively high incidence rates among both humans and dogs in Thailand.

“Before 2015, most rabies cases were reported in northern states. The outbreak in Perlis and Kedah were thought to have originated from Thailand by land.

“Some of the outbreak in Penang and Terengganu were also linked to dogs brought by fishermen boats from Thailand.

In Sarawak, the source of the virus was traced to free-roaming dogs observed moving across the border with West Kalimantan.

While dog vaccination is the most effective single measure to protect humans from rabies, the movement of stray dogs puts a damper on the effort, she said.

“The vaccination needs to cover at least 70% of the dog population.”

Malaysia was declared free from rabies by the World Animal Health Organisation in 2013 with the last record of a human case in 1998 and a canine case in 1999.

However, a rabies outbreak occurred in July 2015 in Perlis, Kedah and Penang. Then in June 2017, a rabies outbreak was declared in Sarawak.

Rafdzah said there was a lack of awareness of the epidemic, especially among rural communities.

“The community needs to be aware of the importance of seeking prompt treatment and where such treatment is available.

“Once a dog infected with rabies has bitten a person, the only way to potentially save that person’s life is to provide proper wound management, post-exposure prophylaxis, and rabies immunoglobulin.

“Access to facilities with the appropriate treatment in high-risk areas such as villages near the border is also critical.”

She said rabies could be prevented through dog management, border control, better public awareness, and improved access to cost-effective and high-quality rabies vaccines.

“We should have a mechanism to protect borders from the entry of an infected animal. This will require both improving import control procedures for legally imported dogs and increasing screening to detect illegal dog imports.

“We need to strengthen the capacities of the veterinary services and human health services to support rabies prevention and control activities, including the integration of both animal and human surveillance systems,” she added.