Until recently, Taiwan ranked among the few countries in the world where rabies had been eradicated. Did this honor arrive as a result of years of strenuous effort by the health and agricultural departments? Of course not, because we have hardly made any such effort.
One reason why rabies died out in Taiwan is because we have done so little to protect our environment — or our wild animals, at least. Another reason is that Taiwan used to have a very weak economy. In those days not many people had the time and money needed to keep dogs and cats as pets. With so few animals around, there was not likely to be any rabies.
Now that rabies has made a comeback, there is no need to go blaming each other. Finding rabies is a bit like finding fireflies; it is a sign of improving care for the environment. It is nothing to be ashamed of; rather it is something worth celebrating.
In the US, for example, incidents of rabies detected among wild animals have not been reduced. On the contrary, they have increased year after year. However, rabies in humans is under control, with the number of cases declining as the years go by. That is real success.
Since most people do not come into contact with wild animals in their daily lives, rabies can be confined to wild animals. People should not approach or provoke wild animals. They should stay on marked trails, wear boots and carry a stick when hiking or climbing. Essentially, rabies is a behavior-related illness that is caught mostly by people who disregard such advice.
Another way the US has been successful is in the vaccination of pet dogs and cats, and by controlling strays. These measures form an invisible wall between humans and wild animals, keeping rabies confined to wild animals that do not often come into contact with people. Taiwan would do well to implement a vaccination program like the one in the US.
While some US experts have been invited to Taiwan, they should not be asked to help us control rabies in ferret-badgers, because the US has no experience with ferret-badgers. Instead, we should study US policies for keeping humans, dogs and cats free of rabies.
Taiwan has been free of rabies for a long time, and that may be why only three in 10 dogs and cats get vaccinated against the virus. Now that supplies of the vaccine are being delivered, a military-style operation to increase the vaccination rate among stray and pet dogs and cats to more than 70 percent — enough to keep human beings safe — should be carried out.
Stray dogs and cats are the key concern, because they often interact with wild animals. However, vaccinating them is difficult. Agricultural departments must try to get their vaccination priorities right. They should not devote their limited resources entirely to domestic animals while overlooking strays, which is where the real danger lies.
The number of people infected with rabies in the US keeps falling, but it has never reached zero. That is because bats can carry rabies. Human rabies cases in the US nearly all come from bats. Luckily for Taiwan, bats in this country do not carry the virus, so keeping human rabies cases at zero is feasible, as long as the work is done.
Cases of rabies in humans around the world are quite rare, so there is not a great demand for human rabies vaccines, there is not a great deal of the vaccine in stock and it is rather expensive. With no people infected in Taiwan so far, it is not necessary to prepare lots of human vaccine. However, there has been a lot of overreaction and panic. The blame for this lies with so-called experts who have been stirring things up in the media.
It would be better if everyone acted a little more calmly. A scientific approach to the rabies problem is much better than the media circus we have been seeing.
Wang Jen-hsien is president of the Taiwan Counter Contagious Diseases Society.
Translated by Julian Clegg