Why lah info on rabies is so slow?

When I asked my mother where babies came from, she thought I said rabies. She said you get them from being bitten by a dog. The next week, a woman on my block gave birth to triplets … I thought she’d been bitten by a Great Dane.  

Woody Allen, American film director

I thought rabies was well under control in our state, or at least people won’t be dying from the disease. But I was wrong.

On Nov 21, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah — on top of his usual daily Covid-19 pandemic media briefing — announced the death of a 16-year-old girl at the Sarawak General Hospital from rabies on Nov 11.

Her death brought to six, the number of fatalities in Sarawak this year, bringing the cumulative figures in the state to 28 since the outbreak of the virus in July 2017.

Sarawak used to be a rabies-free state. But sadly, that changed when on July 4, 2017 a six-year-old girl and her brother, aged 4, in Serian died of the disease, followed by the deaths of a seven-year-old child on July 13 and a five-year-old victim on July 17. Both were also from Serian.

Their deaths were the first recorded rabies fatalities in the country after nearly 20 years.

The source of the rabies outbreak in Sarawak was said to have originated from West Kalimantan where there was an outbreak.

A local private veterinarian tipped off our authorities about Indonesians crossing the border into Sarawak with their hunting dogs, some of which could have been carrying the virus.

Though the health authorities could have taken action — perhaps not fast enough — other agencies were said to have not reacted fast enough to prevent the illegal crossings by people from West Kalimantan with their virus-carrying dogs.

One cannot blame these agencies, though, as the crossings were via jalan tikus which were virtually hard to monitor. Anyway, it’s pointless to point the finger at anybody now. Too late for all that!

What we can do is to take all the precautionary steps available.

As we all know, rabies is a viral disease transmitted through the bites of infected animals like dogs and cats. Yes, felines too can transmit the disease, but dogs — especially stray ones — are the main culprits.

The virus affects the nervous system. Symptoms may include fever and headache; without immediate medical attention the virus will cause severe complications, eventually leading to death.

As strays are the main spreaders of the disease, it’s important that we don’t abandon our canine friends on the streets. I know that people tend to love puppies, but not dogs!

I know this for a fact as I have witnessed relatives and friends abandoning their adult dogs after taking great care of them as puppies. I wish the authorities would come up with laws to prosecute owners who abandon their pets to fend for themselves.

Anyway, let’s come to the point. On the latest fatal case in Sarawak, why did it take the authorities — the health people in particular — a full 10 days to announce the death of the teenage victim?

The girl was reported to have died at 3.45pm on Nov 11 and tests by the Institute of Medical Research (IMR) the next day confirmed she was infected with rabies.

I just can’t fathom why the Health Ministry took so long to make the announcement! Can the ministry people be kind enough to clarify? Otherwise, the public might jump to the conclusion that someone is trying to suppress critical information.

Political secretary to the chief minister Michael Tiang took the initiative to call on the Health Ministry to make available information on rabies to agencies in the state without delay, arguing that such information should be disseminated in a similar fashion as information on Covid-19 is made to agencies and the public.

The shocked politician said announcing the death of the 16-year-old victim after more than a week was just not acceptable and lacked transparency on the part of the medical authorities.

The lack of transparency has created more problems when rumours circulated that the virus had spread to several areas in Sibu which has since caused panic and unrest among residents.

Tiang felt it’s important for local authorities, health department and veterinary services to obtain first-hand information on rabies cases to take immediate action.

Thanks, Mr Tiang, for highlighting the issue.

In the meantime, I wish to appeal to pet owners to take better care of their pets and not to dump them on the streets. How would you feel if your children were to dump you in a home for the aged?