After Ebola, Rabies: Sierra Leone Stray Dog Population Up to Half a Million

Jose Luis Gonzalez /Reuters
Jose Luis Gonzalez /Reuters

Sierra Leone has experienced a dramatic fall in the number of Ebola cases in the nation over the past month, prompting the government to reopen schools and attempt to return civilians to normal daily life. Much has changed in the past year due to the outbreak, including the population of stray dogs, which has doubled to an estimated half a million.

Many stray dogs were pets of Ebola victims and abandoned, as neighbors feared contracting the disease from the dog. Dogs living freely on the streets are at the risk of contracting rabies and passing it on by attacking, triggering fears that an entirely new health threat is growing in Sierra Leone.

Voice of America interviewed veterinarians in Freetown, the nation’s capital, who fear that the growing dog population will create yet another outbreak, or at least make the streets of Freetown much more dangerous to tread. Dr. Gudosh Jalloh explains that veterinarians in the nation have not had access to rabies vaccines in months, as they depend on imports to receive them, and shipments stopped in light of the Ebola virus. The solution now, he says, is to “to do humane dog population control, which will include vaccination, sterilization and, when necessary, humane culling.”

Voice of America notes that rabies was already “endemic” in Sierra Leone and the nation previously had one of Africa’s largest populations of stray dogs. According to Jalloh, that population has now doubled to 500,000, many of them house pets forced to live in the streets after their families died or abandoned them, fearing Ebola contagion. “People started to stigmatize their dog, abandon them, not looking after them, we had some communities where people were really being cruel to the animal, to the dogs,” Jalloh explained.

The article adds that, while many see stray dogs as a threat, they have become part of the social fabric of Freetown and even serve to deter crime. Says Mabinty Kamara of the Freetown City Council: “These animals are very useful to us, at night we have thieves coming around and dogs will bark at them, so they will be scared,” Kamara said. “So it is very important for us to take care of these animals.”

No statistics have surfaced regarding how many of these dogs may carry rabies, or how many have infected residents of Freetown in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. However, estimates suggest 160 people a day die of rabies worldwide, most in India and Africa. 59,000 die a year of the disease, and most cases of rabies are fatal.

As for Ebola, despite fears that the dogs may be carrying their late owners’s disease, the US Center for Disease Control notes that there have yet to be any recorded instances of dogs transmitting Ebola to humans. “There is limited evidence that dogs become infected with Ebola virus, but there is no evidence they develop disease,” the CDC concludes.

This did not stop officials in the United States from quarantining Bentley, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel of Texas nurse Nina Pham, who was diagnosed with and survived Ebola. Bentley was quarantined as a precautionary measure and eventually tested negative for Ebola and was reunited with his owner.

Excalibur, the mixed breed dog of Spanish nurse Teresa Romero, did not survive concerns that he may have carried Ebola. While Spanish medical officials provided no evidence publicly that Excalibur was a threat, he was put to death almost immediately after his owner tested positive for the disease despite an extensive online campaign to save him. Romero is suing the government for $373,000 in damages in response to his death.

The struggle to contain Sierra Leone’s dog population is one of a number of signs that the outbreak’s strangehold on life in the west African nation is loosening. The nation’s schools officially reopened on April 14 following a nine-month closing, the last of the three most-affected nations to do so. Traditional herbalists, largely blamed for the spread of Ebola by encouraging the kidnapping of the ill from hospitals to be treated with herbal cures, are demanding renewed participation in the fight against Ebola. “We the traditional healers and secret members want to be totally involved in the fight against Ebola as such,” said healer Babah Kanu at a meeting of herbalists this week. Such brazen demands to be included in a medical fight they posed a barrier to would have been unheard of months ago.

Sierra Leone has lost 12,201 people to Ebola.