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Battling a deadly virus

In Vietnam, rabies is still a major threat

Battling a deadly virus
Physician John Luong An Khanh treats a victim of a dog bite reporter, Yen Bai

October 1, 2012

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World Rabies Day fell on September 28 and in Nghia Lo, in the north of Vietnam, a meeting on that day entitled Prevent Rabies Together drew 1,000 people. The National Health Ministry says the rabies virus is a serious threat here, with around 100 fatalities every year. It is a particular hazard in the country’s mountainous northern provinces where dogs – whose bites are the principal source of the disease – roam wild in large numbers. Tran Thi Ha, 25, was attacked by a rabid dog two weeks ago. “I grappled with the dog and it bit my leg and arm badly,” she says, “until neighbors came to rescue me.” Local medics could not stop her wounds from bleeding, so Ha was taken to a health center in Yen Bai City. “I spent 10 million dong (US$500) on medical treatment and vaccinations,” she says. “The dog had bitten and killed three chickens so I was afraid I was infected with the rabies virus.” The dog was later slaughtered and eaten by her neighbors. Now looking pale, drawn and exhausted, Ha suffers from headaches and fever and is painfully sensitive to light. Despite the vaccinations, she is exhibiting typical symptoms of rabies. But these are not her only woes. “My family can’t live on the 50,000 dong my husband earns on construction sites,” she says. “I’ve had to borrow money from relatives to cover my treatment.” If a victim of a rabid dog bite receives treatment within hours, the virus is normally defeated. If not, it almost invariably proves fatal. Doctor Luong Van Hom, director of the Yen Bai province health department, says nine people have died this year; all of them had failed to receive the vital vaccinations after being bitten. But he has a further difficulty, as he says that local people are worried that the vaccine has adverse side effects, so they tend to seek treatment via  traditional medicine. However, John Luong An Khang, a physician who specializes in traditional treatments in the city, insists that his methods are effective. “I’ve cured 70 patients of rabies since 1995,” he says. He does not disagree with the health department’s estimate that there are around 100,000 domestic dogs in the province and at least 60 percent of them are not vaccinated. Nguyen Van Hai, a farmer, keeps a pack of dogs to guard his 25,000 sq.m. property. Three months ago, a rabid dog bit his aunt. “She was saved after she got vaccinated, but now she has a mental disorder,” he says. “This year I’ve killed three rabies-infected dogs after they started showing symptoms.” Those symptoms include complete loss of appetite, salivating, suffering diarrhea, running around aimlessly, barking frantically and biting anything. The illness reaches a peak in April, May, September and October. “Local people keep dogs for meat or sell them to restaurants,” says Hai. “A dog weighing 15 kgs can be sold for a million dong (US $50) and dog meat is hugely popular around here.”
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