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Tororo, Busia hit by rabies vaccine shortage amidst surge in dog bites

Stray dog resting at Tororo hospital

Stray dog resting at Tororo hospital

A severe shortage of rabies vaccines has hit government health facilities in eastern Uganda amidst a surge in the number of people bitten by suspected rabid animals.

A survey conducted in Tororo, Busia, and Namayingo districts revealed significant shortages of rabies vaccines, leaving many victims stranded at home or seeking help from traditional healers. Treatment for rabies is available at a few government health facilities, including Tororo Government hospital, Rubongi Military hospital, Mulanda and Mukujju health centre IVs in Tororo, Masafu General hospital in Busia, and Buyinja health centre in Namayingo.However, these facilities have nearly run out of stock.

For instance, records at Masafu hospital show that the facility receives only 20 doses of rabies vaccines quarterly, insufficient to meet the growing demand. Rabies is a vaccine-preventable viral disease spread through saliva from infected animals via bites, scratches, or licks to open wounds.

It is almost always fatal once symptoms develop. Victims usually show signs of the disease within 1-3 months of being bitten and die within 7-10 days after symptoms manifest. Wild carnivores, such as foxes, jackals, and wild dogs, are reservoirs for rabies and can transmit it to domestic dogs. 

Health and veterinary officials visiting a victim bitten by a rabid dog in Masafu, Busia
Health and veterinary officials visiting a victim bitten by a rabid dog in Masafu, Busia

Symptoms in humans include headache, fear of water, difficulty swallowing, and anxiety. In animals, signs include aggressiveness, excessive salivation, and difficulty swallowing. Rabies is a significant threat in Uganda, where a rabies vaccine costs between Shs 40,000 and Shs 100,000 in private clinics, making it unaffordable for many. 

Tororo is a hotspot for rabies, with five people on average bitten by suspected rabid dogs monthly. Collins Maya, a father of five from Namayuge, Buswale sub-county, Namayingo district, was bitten and infected with rabies in May 2024. He spent Shs 180,000 for one dose of the vaccine and is uncertain about his future health.

Stephen Mangeni, from Sikuda sub-county in Busia, lost his 20-year-old brother to rabies after failing to get a vaccine at Masafu hospital. Hellen Akello from Tororo municipality, tested positive for rabies and spent Shs 345,000 on treatment at a private hospital. 

Timothy Owor, a piggery farmer from Rubongi sub-county in Tororo, was bitten by a rabid dog this month and applied engine oil on the wound as first aid due to a lack of knowledge. Teddy Adong, a 62-year-old woman from Tororo municipality, was also bitten by a wild dog in this month and is currently in pain with an untreated wound. 

Veterinary epidemiologist Sonja Hartnack, working with Makerere University, emphasizes that dog bites cause over 95 per cent of rabies cases. She advocates for vaccinating dogs to prevent transmission and reduce suffering and healthcare costs. 

Dr Juuko Ndawula, a consultant for herbal therapy, warns against visiting traditional healers for rabies treatment, as it is ineffective. Dr Pakasi Daniel Nalapa, Tororo district veterinary officer, highlights challenges such as lack of facilitation for pet vaccinations and community reluctance. He recommends massive community sensitization and enforcement of vaccination laws.

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