College of Veterinary Medicine |
advance featured stories 2013

Healthy Animals, Healthy People, Healthy Planet

The WSU Rabies Vaccination Program


Vaccinate a Dog and Save a Child’s Life

by Marcia Hill Gossard '99, '04


At 8:00 a.m. people in an East African village have already begun to line up with their dogs. Mostly it is young boys with their pets coming to one of the many free rabies vaccination clinics set up around the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania.

“There can be 200 people in line at a time and we may vaccinate as many as 1,000 dogs in a day,” said Dr. Felix Lankester, clinical assistant professor for the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.

They never turn anyone away.

The long-term goal is to use these strategies and knowledge to develop other rabies-free zones.”Dr. Felix Lankester, clinical assistant professor for the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health

By 2:00 p.m. they are done administering the vaccinations. The team vaccinates an average of 500 dogs each day. They visit 180 villages every year in seven districts adjacent to the Serengeti. The vaccination zone (a cordon sanitaire) is a belt of land 10 kilometers wide (or about six miles) that stretches approximately 1,100 kilometers all the way around the Serengeti National Park, covering a total area of approximately 11,000 square kilometers. Although there is rabies outside of the vaccinated area, because of the program the cordon sanitaire itself is rabies free.

rabies 1
Villagers in East Africa lining up for their dogs to be vaccinated.

“Human incidence of rabies in the vaccination zone has been reduced to zero since the project began,” said Lankester. Before the program there would have been 50 to 100 cases each year and most people would have witnessed someone with the disease. Of those cases, one-third to one-half would have been children under the age of 16.

“What distinguishes rabies from other viruses is that the vaccine is very effective in eliminating the disease,” said Lankester. “The vaccine is 100 percent effective.”

The disease is easily preventable with regular dog vaccinations, or by post-bite vaccinations within the first 24 hours after a person is bitten by a rabid dog. But once symptoms appear, the disease is always fatal. According to the World Health Organization, more than 55,000 people die from rabies each year. These deaths are mostly in Africa, India, and other parts of Asia where 99 percent of rabies cases are found, said Lankester.

“Rabies is the deadliest zoonotic disease on the planet,” said Dr. Guy Palmer, director of the Allen School. “Our goal is to eliminate rabies as a human health problem.”

rabies 2
Dr. Felix Lankester at a Maasai boma.

Once 70 percent of domestic dogs are vaccinated in an area, the virus can no longer find sufficient susceptible hosts and it dies out. To reach as many dogs as possible the teams use two approaches. In six of the seven districts, they set up central point vaccination clinics in the villages. Residents learn about the clinics through announcements on a loud speaker or by word of mouth. In the seventh district the population is predominantly nomadic Maasai tribal people. So instead of a central point clinic, Lankester and his team travel from household-to-household (boma-to-boma), to provide the vaccinations.

Before he joined WSU in 2012, Dr. Lankester worked on the rabies project for three years with Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. The program was started in 2003 when rabies outbreaks were killing lions and African wild dogs. Lankester first became interested in becoming a veterinarian and studying wild animal medicine as a child spending holidays and summers in Africa, so the rabies work in the Serengeti was a perfect fit. When the opportunity arose to sustain the program through a partnership between the Allen School and the Lincoln Park Zoo, it provided a way for Lankester to carry on the important vaccination work.

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Seattle Sounders defender Marc Burch passing out
Sounders player cards. Marc volunteered his time
at the vaccination clinic in Kamba Ya Simba,
Tanzania. The Seattle Sounders Football Club, a
major league soccer team, visited Tanzania in 2012.

The long-term plan is to eventually hand the organization and implementation of the program to the local communities. But in order for it to be a success, researchers at the Allen School must find a way to reduce the cost of administering the vaccinations. Even at just $3 to vaccinate a single child’s dog, the cost is too much for most Tanzanians. One strategy to lower the cost of the vaccinations is to have community members liaise with the veterinary district offices, rather than hiring a single team of Tanzanians to travel around setting up clinics in the various communities.

“By training community members to administer the vaccines, it may reduce the costs of rabies vaccination compared to traditional delivery approaches,” says Dr. Jonathan Yoder, professor in the School of Economic Sciences and the Allen School, who lived in Tanzania as a child. “And more closely aligning the costs of management with the benefits received by the community is key for sustainability.”

Researchers at the Allen School will assess the effectiveness and the difference in cost between the team-based vaccination campaign and the community campaign starting in 2014. Then in 2015-16 they will make a wider comparison to assess if the community-led program is equally effective and less expensive. That way they can identify important cost factors and determine the approach that is most cost effective and beneficial to citizens.

Washington State University