Lhakpa Quendren | Gelephu

The recent rabies outbreak in Sarpang prompted the authorities concerned to intensify their efforts in monitoring and controlling the spread of rabies in the dzongkhag. 

The rabies outbreak, which was first reported in Tareythang gewog, has led to the death of a rabies patient, raising concerns among the public regarding the effective implementation of timely measures to avoid such incidents.  

However, officials say that despite their continuous efforts to prevent the zoonotic disease every year, challenges remain due to various factors such as the mixing of cattle across porous borders, the impact of climate change that brings new diseases, and the shortage of human resources, among others.

A veterinarian at the regional veterinary hospital in Gelephu, Dr Lungten, said that the army personnel and desuups stationed at the border outposts were urged to refrain from entertaining stray dogs and instead chase them away from the border areas. 

As part of the ongoing efforts, he said, mass dog and cat vaccination have been initiated for all the gewogs in Sarpang, with support from the desuups. “We have covered the majority of gewogs, with only five remaining to be vaccinated,” he said, adding that animals that are at high-risk, having come into contact with the virus, are isolated for 45 days and closely monitored with regular check-ups. 

To strengthen the surveillance efforts, awareness programmes with a mandatory attendance of at least one family member from every household, are ongoing for all the gewogs. The two-hour awareness sessions, according to Dr Lungten, covers first aid, rabies symptoms, and procedures to report cases, among others. 

“We urged the public to report to us any dead animals, including wild animals. We have already sent 20 samples of dead animals for testing,” he said. “We are hopeful that there is no ongoing circulation of the virus among animals, and we believe the situation is under control for now.”

He said that people are panicking whenever their animals become ill. “We are overwhelmed with public calls every day. We go to their places and attend the cases even on the weekends.”

The 29-year-old RBA soldier, who was bitten by a rabid dog on May 31 at the Tareythang army outpost, passed away on the evening of July 17 as the rabies virus affected his brain. The deceased was bitten by an unidentified dog while attempting to save a cat. 

The deceased patient reported to the Tareythang primary healthcare center for medication on the same day. Despite medication, the patient developed a fever that lasted for five days before being admitted to the Central Regional Referral Hospital (CRRH), Gelephu on June 24. 

The medical superintendent of the Central Regional Referral Hospital (CRRH), Dr Choeda Gyaltshen, said that the Tareythang health assistant had done up to his knowledge and there was no issue.

“There was no rabies outbreak reported during that time. Unfortunately, the person was bitten by a rabid dog,” he said. The outbreak was confirmed only three weeks after the incident when the virus affected the cattle. 

“Epidemiologically, the rabies virus could be traced after the dog bite, but the Basic Health Unit doesn’t have the capacity to do so,” he said.

“Usually, a dog bite person is not admitted to the hospital. They are sent back home after receiving Anti Rabies Vaccine (ARV) vaccination and wound cleaning.”

The sample was sent to a laboratory in India for confirmation, and the result is expected to take some time. The hospital handed over the dead body, which was kept in the mortuary until July 18, to the RBA in line with the standard operating procedure (SOP).

The hospital surveillance includes awareness and training programmes for all the health facilities in Sarpang, providing additional rabies vaccines, and door-to-door campaigns to find out missing animal bites, among others.

“We administered ARV against rabies among the high-risk people. Additionally, on the advice of the Prime Minister, we have delivered immunoglobulin to all the health facilities, which is usually not available at BHUs,” said Dr Choeda Gyaltshen.

He also said that the three patients, all children aged five, 12, and 18 years, who were bitten by a rabid dog at the army residential colony in Pelrithang on July 5 and 6 have not reported any issues so far. 

According to the sources, the outbreak is suspected to have occurred from the transfer of dogs from one place to another, given that all three outbreaks were reported in the army colony.