Dr Shelburne’s Mission Rabies Trip to Tanzania

“There is African time and there is American time”, John, my local driver explains to me as we await a man who, thirty minutes prior, had assured us he would be back in a minute with 3 dogs to vaccinate. It annoys John that no one in Africa is on time, ever. Yet the “Chop! Chop!” pace he correctly describes and admires as the American way, in my world, is often the source of a pernicious anxiety that appears to be absent in this beautiful country.

So, needless to say, our day starts off slowly. John stops and has a chat in Swahili that I roughly surmise goes back and forth like this: “Hello!” , “Cool” ; “Good morning”, “Beautiful”; “ Welcome”, “Thank you”; “Hello my friend”, “Great” and so on until eventually the inevitable “ Do you have a dog or a cat that needs rabies vaccination?” pops out. Occasionally during these interactions, John also bargains and eventually buys a ripe avocado, deftly plucked from a basket carried on the head. African people seem friendly, very polite and welcoming but I do see how the slow progress can be frustrating when your goal is a mass vaccination campaign.

Lucky for us, there are huge numbers of children in Tanzania. They run around free and happy at ages that are impossibly young, even three or four years old. In fact, our intrepid project leader, Amy, told me in her lovely British accent, “You couldn’t do it without the children.” Children soak up the education programs and then flock to the vaccine “static points”: schools and other local gathering sites where they have previously been told to bring their dogs. They come with wide eyes, big smiles and literally hundreds of dogs. They wear used clothes clearly sent from all over the world, knock-offs that read “Adidos” and “Neke” complete with stripes and a swoosh. A young boy sports a Stoneleigh Burnham jacket from an all-girls prep school near my hometown in New England. On its front is an embroidered name, “Bryna.” It makes me laugh and this is good because the Tanzanians also laugh at the funny looking foreigners, jumping like crickets to vaccinate so many dogs.

The dogs arrive held in the children’s arms or by make-shift leashes knotted from every kind of rope or chain available. There are big and small dogs, pregnant dogs and litters of puppies. Most are brown, nondescript and resigned to being held still for the brief injection. Some have skin disease or lacerations which we treat as best we can in such a limited field situation. Ultimately these “static points” are amazingly effective. We vaccinate over 188 dogs in the course of one morning.

Our goal is to vaccinate 70% of the dogs in an area, the proven way to eliminate rabies from the population. A day or two after the static point program is done we sweep back through the area with our driver, going slowly along, swapping endless pleasantries and engaging in long chats to see if we can get those last few remaining dogs vaccinated.

In the end, with all the veterinary teams working independently, over 7000 dogs are done and we achieve well over our 70% goal. Thanks to the children, the same population at a high risk of dying of rabies acquired from dog bites, we have found an effective and measurable way to help. The last recorded human death from rabies in the area was in 2017. The exacting and time conscious American in me loves the science, the numbers and the knowledge that this system works. But after two weeks of immersion in this gorgeous country, I am also drawn in by the intrinsic, kindly African way and it simply makes me happy to have played my small part.

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