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During the rabies outbreak in Padawan, Kuching, last year, animal owners rushed to get their pet dogs vaccinated. PIC BY CHE RANI CHE DIN
During the rabies outbreak in Padawan, Kuching, last year, animal owners rushed to get their pet dogs vaccinated. PIC BY CHE RANI CHE DIN

THE first official warnings of a possible outbreak of rabies in Sarawak went out as early as in 2015. Three years later, the warnings have become a grim reality, claiming 10 lives and the even more tragic reality that the state seems no closer to containing the dreaded disease.

The official response to the outbreak can best be described as lacklustre. Even as first reports came in of confirmed cases near the state’s long border with Indonesian Kalimantan, there seemed no official urgency to implement what should otherwise be a standard response to a medical emergency: culling of stray dogs as a precaution.

For inexplicable reasons, the preferred official response was and remains mass vaccination campaigns. This is of course akin to locking sheds after the horses have bolted.

It should have been obvious to top officials in charge of combatting the outbreak right from the start that for a variety of reasons ranging from inadequate resources (especially of vaccines) and manpower to the public lack of alarm (resulting surely also from an inadequate public information exercise to drive home the mortal danger of infection of both dogs and humans alike) that vaccination as the principal means to check the disease will be woefully insufficient.

Time, too, is definitely of the essence and three years hence, it has become abundantly clear that precious time has been wasted to nip the spread of the disease in the bud.

Where once instances of the outbreak had been confined only to localities nearest to the Indonesian border, they have since been confirmed in central Sarawak, as far away from the border as can be.

And just in the last week or so, it seems an official blame game has started, with Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas decrying a lack of federal support in combating the spread of rabies in the state.

To its credit, the federal reaction has been swift. Bandar Kuching member of parliament Dr Kelvin Yii introduced an emergency motion as Parliament resumed sitting this week and in an immediate response, Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Salahuddin Ayub promised funds to beef up the Sarawak Department of Veterinary Services, including the upgrading of its veterinary laboratory in Kuching so that testing on the rabies virus can be done locally.

Dr Yii had lamented in Parliament that there had been conflicting reports on the severity of the rabies outbreak in the state as he called for a clearer picture of the situation on the ground.

It is incumbent upon the state authorities to quickly clear the picture if indeed Dr Yii’s complaint has basis. The rabies outbreak has become not just a test of the state government’s crisis management in the face of a medical emergency but also an early test of how well both state and federal authorities can cooperate and coordinate their responses to it.

This is not the time for politicking and shifting any blame when the health and lives of ordinary citizens are still being exposed to a potentially fatal disease lurking in our midst.

The public will expect nothing but that both relevant federal and state authorities all the way up to ministers involved to quickly sit down, get the best assessment available of where we are at as regards the outbreak and its spread and if the current response to contain it is adequate and effective or, if not, what further steps are needed and where or how best to quickly get hold of all the resources and support services required.

It will be foolhardy for the state to expect that an inadequate response will, over time, lead to the state being declared as rabies-free anytime soon. Especially as the public has been left in the dark as to how far and deep the outbreak may have become now.

The state authorities might also have been unduly influenced in the early stages when the outbreak first became apparent by some unreasonable elements in animal-rights groups. A looming public health crisis is surely no time for the authorities to not take any measures necessary, however drastic, to stop an infectious menace dead in its tracks.

The priority should always be the health of people. Anything else, including the lives of animals, will have to be of secondary importance.

Ordinarily, stray dogs roaming streets across Sarawak may be just a public nuisance. Not when they turn into potentially deadly health hazards. Hopefully, it’s not too late for this to dawn on all.

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The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

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