What's the future of Lincoln Park Zoo's Africa rabies program?

BUNDA, Tanzania — Tucked in a quiet corner of the bustling area occupied by this town's bus station and central market, the setup doesn't look like much: a few of the country's ubiquitous four-wheel-drive vehicles, some men in dress shirts, and a red bucket and a couple of picnic coolers that are at least as beat-up as the trucks. Atop the bucket, though, is a gleaming array of hypodermic needles, starkly clinical amid the dust and scattered garbage of the market. On the far side of the vehicles is an even more extraordinary sight in Tanzania: dogs on leashes. Some of the makeshift tethers are rope and some are chain, sudden restraints on a free-range life. As the dogs stand with their mostly boy handlers in an irregular line, they bark and whimper periodically. One dog occasionally challenges another, and the men keep a wary eye on the few animals that seem especially aggressive. When a black-and-tan dog twists and slips its chain collar, there is a sudden surge of vigilance until the boy gets it back on the leash. Steve Johnson Bio | E-mail | Recent columns Related Africa's scourge, Chicago's crusade Photos: Lincoln Park Zoo rabies eradication Photos: Scenes from Tanzania Lincoln Park Zoo works to eradicate rabies in Africa Chicagoan saves one dog at a time from rabies in Africa See more stories » But for animals that spend their days roaming and foraging, protecting livestock and helping as hunters, they seem surprisingly patient, the scene, on this October morning, surprisingly routine. The dogs are waiting to take their medicine, the annual vaccinations that have virtually eliminated rabies, in humans and in animals, in the towns and villages surrounding the country's iconic Serengeti National Park and in the park itself, one of the world's great wildlife preserves. It's a program directed and mostly paid for by a small not-for-profit organization half a world away, Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. ”Part of our mission at Lincoln Park Zoo is conserving wildlife where the wildlife is,” says Lisa Faust, the zoo's conservation and science vice president, who watches the proceedings keenly. She is spending two weeks touring the Tanzanian operation to try to figure out how best to run it going forward. The calculations include finding the money to keep paying for it and the ultimate but challenging goal of passing its control into Tanzanian hands. For the past five years the zoo's Serengeti Health Initiative has been injecting domestic dogs here. Begun in 2003 by another group of scientists, the program delivered its millionth vaccine in the spring. Along the way, it has nipped disease outbreaks in the park that were killing lions and other predators, and it has saved 50 to 150 human lives a year in the villages. "The program is working,” says Julius Keyyu, research and coordination director of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, a government agency headquartered in the city of Arusha. “They are doing a good job, especially the vaccination effort in the Serengeti area. Even human bites are down.” The Serengeti Health Initiative is one of several projects that have proved domestic dog vaccination can effectively control or eliminate rabies in the developing world, just as it has in wealthier nations. The work has helped push a worldwide effort to fight rabies that has gained special vigor in the past seven years, since the founding of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control. With a toll conservatively estimated at 70,000 deaths a year — almost all in Africa and Asia, close to half of the victims children — this long-known and almost entirely preventable disease is one of the deadliest zoonotics, even as the bulk of the attention in recent years has gone to the likes of swine flu, avian flu and SARS. The Serengeti program, says Keyyu, “is being used as a model in different parts of the world to control rabies.” Like many public health initiatives, the anti-rabies effort seeks to put itself out of business by eliminating its targeted disease. But in the meantime, the zoo's initial funding commitment is running out at the end of the year. When Faust returns from the trip, one of her first big agenda items will be a meeting in Chicago to figure out how the zoo can keep the program going. Part of daily life In the days leading up to a vaccination effort, program workers visit local primary schools to talk about rabies, taking the message to the dogs’ primary caretakers. Then, the day before the vaccination, a vehicle mounted with a loudspeaker rolls through a town or village, telling people when and where to take their dogs. Posters are put up explaining, in words and images, the danger of rabies and what to do in case of an animal bite. Written on them is the time and place where the shots will be given and a key message: The treatment is free. In a country where rural households earned 121,000 Tanzanian shillings, or about $76, per month, according to a 2007 government survey, few people in these towns have money to spare for dogs. The cycle is repeated from March to December in a 6-mile-wide zone, a cordon-sanitaire (sanitary cordon), around the park. Last year, the zoo’s staff of five Tanzanians delivered 40,000 vaccine doses in 154 vaccination days and passed on approximately another 80,000 doses to local veterinary officials in areas just beyond the zone. Lines are shorter than usual on this day in Bunda. Rain kept the workers from putting up posters, and the town’s size of about 40,000 inhabitants renders the loudspeaker method less effective than in villages. Still, by midmorning about 200 dogs (and a handful of cats) have been inoculated. A vaccination begins with the dog owner approaching the Land Rover where workers sit, taking information through a window in a kind of makeshift medical office.

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