There is no word for rabies in many of India's 22 official languages and innumerable dialects—the closest translation refers to "mad dog," from a belief that such an animal is cursed.
Yet most people in the country are intimately aware of the disease: An Indian child dies of rabies every hour, in nearly every instance from a dog bite.
That shocking statistic galvanized British veterinarian Luke Gamble, a 37-year-old Ironman triathlete and black belt in karate, whose career was destined when his mother gave him a book by James Herriot.
Ten years ago, Gamble founded the World Veterinary Service (WVS), a nonprofit to improve animal welfare in far-flung places by providing supplies, disaster response, and training.
Until now, WVS had never tackled a pandemic like rabies.
Gamble assembled a team of more than 500 volunteers—veterinarians, vet nurses, and vet students from 14 different countries, together with Indian vets and local men trained as dog catchers. He called the initiative Mission Rabies. Its goal: To vaccinate 50,000 dogs in 12 Indian cities in 30 days—unfortunately during monsoon season, in order to coordinate with World Rabies Day on September 28.
Funding came from 25 official sponsors. "I pimped it out," Gamble said with customary cheekiness. "I stopped short of arms dealers, but I took money from anybody else."
On September 1, at 4:00 a.m.—an early start to beat the heat and humidity—teams each made up of about half a dozen people piled into microvans known as Tata Magic (whose dysfunction resembled the van in Little Miss Sunshine). So began the search for street dogs to vaccinate.
Dropped off at promising locations, the teams fanned out, walking, often running, several miles every day—dodging occasional charging bulls—to chase down dogs on flooded narrow lanes where hundreds of people and livestock live side by side. They caught a few hours' sleep in hotels where a shower curtain was a luxury.
Darts and stun guns were both rejected as unpredictable methods—the dogs might go down in some inaccessible place, or the ammunition could hit a person by mistake.
Instead, the catchers—who had to be fast, coordinated, and confident—lassoed the dogs in modified butterfly nets, a humane method developed with the help of S. Chinny Krishna, chairman of an animal welfare organization called Blue Cross of India. Krishna is an engineer, not a vet.
"I saw two people die of rabies—that's enough motivation," he said. "The rabies problem was being addressed with strychnine and mass execution of dogs, methods used since British imperialism. I thought maybe we should try something else."
Once netted, each dog was kept low to the ground by twisting the net and bringing the rim down as a restraint. The dog was given a shot, painted with a stripe to identify its participation, then released. The entire procedure took less than a minute.
As in other developing nations where dogs may be kept for protection and a bit of prestige, the domestic animals were often tied up all day, making them even more ferocious and frightening than street dogs. But the volunteers entered any property where they heard barking.
"We're very forward," said Mike Greenberg, an American vet with teams working in Nagpur and Guwahati. "We're like the annoying guy who walks up to you in a bar and says, 'How you doin'?' But the people accept the intrusion, probably because in this culture they have little sense of personal space. One of the Indian vets told me, 'Quality of life is not a priority; we just care about life.' "
Once their objective was understood, the volunteers were welcomed and cheered, especially by local children, who formed a Pied Piper's entourage in every village. And there was a strong sense of intramural competition—one team's pride in catching 100 dogs in a single morning turned into disappointment if another caught 105.
Obstacles to Wiping Out Rabies
India accounts for one-third of the world's rabies deaths.
Rabies travels through the nerves, so when someone is bitten, the disease can take weeks to manifest itself. But once there are clinical symptoms—anything from fever or headache to paralysis or hallucinations—it's 100 percent fatal.
Even though the Indian government subsidizes the cost of inoculation (it was easier for the Mission Rabies teams to buy vaccine than the spray paint used for marking dogs), getting treated for the disease means leaving work and often trekking to a major city.
The World Health Organization estimates the Indian dog population to be as high as 25 million, and it's impossible to judge how many are infected. Rabid dogs in local communities are killed as soon as they're identified, but not all rabid dogs exhibit the classic frothing at the mouth and aggressive behavior that are the obvious signs of the disease. A dog merely acting "silly" or unpredictably may be infected.
It can be challenging to get things done in India. "We Brits taught India bureaucracy, and India perfected it," said Chris Payne, whose assignment was "logistical support." But the organization managed to outfit a truck, dubbed "the beast," as a mobile veterinary hospital and got it cleared through customs. And Greenberg led a small group of volunteers who turned it into a classroom for teaching the ABCs—animal birth control—to local vets, the logical next step in reducing the number of wild dogs.
"We saw a video on YouTube where some of the municipality dog catchers were boasting about how many dogs they could kill in a day," said Dagmar Mayer, a German vet. "I always tried to explain that the only sustainable and proven way to produce a healthy and stable dog population is by sterilizing and vaccinating."
"The biggest challenge was realizing that nothing could be radically changed in a short time," said Francesca Contadini, a vet from Italy. The volunteers had to be satisfied with demonstrating the value of incremental differences—animals that no longer posed a danger might be treated with more affection. "We saw some really crude scenes, people hitting dogs, people living on top of garbage," said Contadini, "but the change had to be made in tiny ways—improving their lives so that the people will want to improve their own surroundings."
Gamble knew that if Mission Rabies inoculated "only" 49,999 dogs, his sponsors would be unhappy.
"I pulled 50,000 out of the air when I put the proposal forward," he said. "I had absolutely no idea if it was possible, but I needed a figure that would make people step back and know we were serious."
Gamble's gamble paid off: The goal was met—and surpassed, for a grand total of 60,310 dogs inoculated.
"That's one dog vaccinated every 40 seconds, and countless people saved from the fear of rabies," said Kate Shervell, a British vet.
On the last day, her team saw a rabid dog bite three other dogs seconds before it was caught, sedated, and euthanized. "Luckily none of the local people reported having been bitten," she said, "but it really brought home what we were doing."
A Modest Start
There has been no official reaction yet to the success of Mission Rabies. "No one actually expected us to do it, so there is a momentary pause," said Gamble, now back at his veterinary practice in the New Forest, in southern England.
"But the city of Chennai has pledged to vaccinate 150,000 dogs a year, and we'll see if that comes to fruition. The big thing would be for the Indian government to release central funds that would allow us to drive the mission on. India spends approximately $25 million a year on postexposure rabies vaccines. For $15 million, we could vaccinate every dog in the country."
Gamble emphasizes that rabies is almost 100 percent preventable.
"Being a dad with three young children myself, the drive to do something about rabies couldn't be stronger," he said. "There aren't that many people in my privileged position to take it on. The opportunity to nail this is incredible."