Roaming around Kerala... to vaccinate stray dogs
It's been a few months since I wrote during my sabbatical. I am grateful I was able to spend the summer in Europe to be reunited with my loved ones and simply enjoy the little things that life has to offer.
For the last month of this 6-month sabbatical, I decided to go volunteer again with animals, and you may have guessed it, I decided to help rabies vaccination teams on the ground in India. The city of Trivandrum (Indian name: Thiruvananthapuram) is the capital of Kerala's state, at the Southwestern tip of India. Kerala is known as God's own country, as it offers some magnificient landscapes, both by the Indian ocean and at higher altitude, where forest and tea plantations dominate.
I was taken aback to find the city pretty clean and calm, compared to my memories of India in 2014. Kerala is known to be one of the most developed states of India, with a high rate of literacy. Public schooling is offering access to education and a lunch time meal to all children from 5 to 15 years old. I've been lucky to go to several of these schools in the scope of my volunteering - more on that later.
However I won't lie, the first 10 days here didn't go as I had initially expected and I had some tough days when I felt lonely and sad. I landed happy to contribute to the meaningful cause of rabies elimination, yet my contribution was limited for several reasons and I felt frustrated and useless at times. As with every situation in life, I learned from it and I kept my motivation thanks to the support of special friends and my darling remotely.
The NGO I am volunteering for is an established Indian animal welfare charity called CAWA (which stands for Compassion for Animals Welfare Association). I was put in touch with their campaign director who was enthusiastic to have me join after reviewing my volunteer CV back in August. So here I went booking my flights and finding an accomodation to stay in Trivandrum, eager to be on the ground again as of October 9.
The vaccination campaign
The vaccination campaign around Trivandrum is actually made on behalf of the city council, who agrees to the overarching plan while the costs are sponsored by Indian Immunologicals Limited (the largest animal and human vaccine producer of India) as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs; and CAWA is mandated to execute it. You have to imagine this is a long term project, and unlike the short and highly intensive Mission Rabies campaigns of 1-2 weeks with whom I volunteered in the past (see my blog posts of the missions I took part in Uganda and Cambodia), perseverance is of the essence. This campaign is designed to take place over 9 months - with two daily 3-hour vaccination drives around sunrise and sunset, when most stray dogs are visible. The duration of the campaign is an estimate to cover the entire city, district by district. You can see the picture of how far the team is to date (colored ones are completed as of October 25th 2023), after starting the campaign in July 2023 - there are 100 districts to cover!
The team is consisted of 1 vet nurse (who applies the vaccine to the dogs), 1 data entry coordinator and 4 dog catchers with nets. Catching dogs by net is the safest and most welfare-friendly way to avoid injury for both humans and dogs alike. As you can imagine, stray dogs are not like pets and are usually not amenable to be held by hand. They even start running away once they see the jeep and smell the previous dogs' scents left on the nets... so it's quite a sporty affair! The dog catchers are highly trained and strong individuals (the net is quite heavy to carry), and the success of the campaign depends highly on them.
I was able to help the team with data entry (since I'm not a vet nurse and cannot apply the vaccine); luckily the team is using the same app as Mission Rabies, which has been developed by Worldwide Vet Service. It's been easy to come onboard. We also had flyers in local language (malayalam) which I would distribute to some locals as some of them would be wondering why we capture the dogs temporarily. Most communities around Trivandrum are curious and care about the stray dogs, which are often fed with leftover food. I didn't see many skinny dogs, albeit several had some skin diseases such as mange.
Education as a tool to prevent rabies
Another side of the project is raising community awareness, and more specifically in kids, to prevent rabies death. This takes place in the form of educational sessions held at government primary schools for kids around 6-8 years old. This is critical because as we know (see this earlier post explaining what is rabies in more details), the majority of rabies deaths are observed in children under 15 years old via a dog bite or scratch.
The educational session is held daily in a different school and is meant to be fun & short (30-40 minutes) and ludic so kids can easily remember. The first part of the lesson is dedicated to behavior of dogs and how to behave around them to prevent being bitten. The second part of the lesson is focused on what to do if you're indeed bitten or scratched by a dog. I'm sure you all know by now, rabies is totally preventable yet 100 % fatal once clinical symptoms appear. That's why it's important to wash the wound immediately with soap and water for 15 minutes and then seek medical attention for further treatment.
It was good fun and even though my understanding of Malayalam is very limited, I enjoyed watching the CAWA educators deliver the lessons and see how kids are eager to learn and participate. It was also a good learning opportunity for me since I'm not used to be around children.
As you know, I am continuing and about to complete a postgrad diploma in One Health with the University of Edinburgh. The last two modules are entitled "Connecting Environment with Society" and "Emerging Infectious Diseases". The content is fascinating and taking a significant amount of my time to digest, read relevant literature and write the assignments, and I am eager to conclude this 3.5 year part-time studying chapter of my life soon! My hope is to finally transition out of the corporate world to work in an NGO or a social entreprise connecting my deeper values and newly acquired knowledge, including what I learned during my multiple volunteerings in the past few years, to make an impact for a more sustainable future on our beautiful planet - where natural ecosystems, animals and humans are in harmony.
Stay tuned as I return to Singapore mid-November to conclude my sabbatical, resume working and hope to figure out my next life chapter from there!