Rabies outbreak in Malaysia after two decades

Five villages in the Serian district of Sarawak have been affected by the epidemic and five cases of deaths from rabies have been reported.
By Sheryl Lau
Published on Tuesday, 22 August 2017

(Photo credit: Bernama Facebook)

In early July this year, the rare disease rabies took away the lives of five Malaysians from the Sarawak, Malaysia—two Malaysian siblings, a seven-year-old and five-year-old girl, as well as a 52-year-old man. Health Minister S. Subramaniam suspected that rabies could have stemmed from the infected dogs in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

According to Malay Mail online, the four-year-old and six-year-old siblings were bitten by dogs two to three months prior. Soon after, they were diagnosed brain dead and their parents decided to remove their life support. Similar scenarios happened to the three other victims and they fell critically ill before they passed on.

Transmitted to humans via a bite from an infected animal—dog, cats or exotics—the zoonotic rabies virus can cause fever, vomiting, depression, agitation, painful spasms, and hallucination. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this virus and it is usually fatal when neurological symptoms develop in humans.

Sarawak’s local government and housing minister Sim Kui Hian mentioned that 60,000 people were inspected over 19 villages and officials have enforced all dogs in the area to be vaccinated against rabies.

However, with the recent outbreaks, the Veterinary Services Department is planning to set up an “immune belt” where checks along the Kalimantan border in Sabah and Sarawak will be intensified. Director-general Quaza Nizamuddin Hassan Nizam said that they will conduct meetings with Thai and Indonesian authorities to solve the issue. Over the next two months, a risk assessment study will also be conducted to assess the probability of future outbreaks and to gauge how wide the immune belt should be.

There are 20,000 doses of rabies vaccines in Malaysia, said Mr Quaza and the department will constantly monitor the situation. Since April, 32,644 animals in have been vaccinated against rabies.

Having basic knowledge of rabies such as signs shown by an infected animal can help an affected individuals to seek help at an early stage. "Such infected animals are usually foaming at the mouth. If bitten, it is important for humans to immediately wash the bitten area with soap and water and seek medical treatment," Mr Quaza advised.

The State Health Department registered 19 new cases of animal bites—eight cases in Kuching, seven in Serian, three in Sri Aman and one in Samarahan. This makes the total number of animal bite cases 2,728 as of 21 August 2017. However, it is reported that another child is showing symptoms of the rabies virus and is currently warded in Sarawak General Hospital (SGH), but not much information has been released.

Even though the officials have plans to tackle the situation, it is important for the public to do their part by ensuring that their pets are vaccinated, and to avoid contact with strays.