NANGALE, Tanzania — Huddled with his younger brother, the young man laughs easily, conspiratorially, at the commotion caused by the presence of curious foreigners in his family's modest compound outside this small village.
But when you ask 19-year-old Maduhu Ginyebu about the scars that tightened and twisted his face, his mood darkens and he sighs heavily. He talks about "other boys laughing" at him.
His father, in a woolen sport coat he has put on to greet the visitors on on this 90-degree October day, says his family has been taunted in the village as "hyena leftovers."
The Ginyebus know wild animals. They live six miles from the world-renowned Serengeti National Park, where tourists pay thousands of dollars to photograph the same wildlife the family sees as part of ordinary life: leopards, wildebeest, jackals and, most often, hyenas.
But the animal that visited them in September 2000 was different, its body coursing with a disease that had maddened and would soon kill it. The rabid hyena, 100-plus pounds of slavering predator, burst into the family's sleeping quarters and tore at Maduhu's and whatever other flesh it could find — his father's wrist, his brother's chest, his mother's hand — before being beaten away and running off to inflict a similar hell upon a neighboring family, disfiguring several young girls.
"We had fences. We had dogs,” the girls' mother, Magaja Misozi, said. “When it comes to the rabid hyena, there is nothing you can do."
The fight to end such attacks traces to an unexpected place: Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, a 35-acre lakefront attraction half a world away, in a country where rabies is all but invisible. The zoo heads a decade-long effort to keep rabies from spreading into wildlife by vaccinating dogs against the virus in villages that border the Serengeti park.
Last spring the project delivered its 1 millionth vaccination, a standard concoction that also protects against canine distemper and parvovirus. If that milestone shot was administered in the project's usual manner, it was done with almost the opposite of fanfare: a dog squeezed between its owner's legs, a needle pulled from a battered cooler, a quick skin prick and a plunge.
The results have been far less prosaic. Lions and African wild dogs, already endangered predators, were dying in the Serengeti of canine distemper and rabies. With the infectious diseases all but wiped out in the dogs that were the diseases' main carriers, the lion population is back to pre-epidemic levels and African wild dogs have recently been reintroduced to the park.
More powerful has been the effect on people: The program, known as the Serengeti Health Initiative, has virtually eliminated rabies transmission from dogs to humans in the villages within the 6.2-mile-wide vaccination zone around the Serengeti. Hard statistics don't exist, but scientists estimate that has saved up to 150 lives annually, many of them children who are the caretakers of domestic dogs.
“You learn about this vaccination program, and the goal of it was to prevent these (disease) outbreaks in Serengeti National Park and to conserve the wildlife and the ecosystem there,” says Anna Czupryna, a doctoral candidate from Chicago studying the effects of the vaccination program. “But along with that we've eliminated rabies in villages such as Nangale.”
She recalls meeting the Misozi girls earlier in the day. Twelve years after the attacks, one girl still can't chew properly; one, ashamed of how she looks, rarely leaves the house. “That we can actually prevent that from happening to other people is amazing,” Czupryna says.
The program — and others like it — has helped spur new global action against rabies. The most optimistic scientists believe they can essentially eradicate the disease worldwide after years of living with a toll conservatively estimated at 70,000 deaths a year, almost all of them in Asia and Africa.
Other zoonotics — diseases that transfer from animals to humans — get more publicity: SARS, swine flu, avian flu. But rabies is many times more lethal and almost wholly preventable. To many, that is an unconscionable combination.
“It's just wrong, it's basically wrong, that a child living in a village bitten by a rabid dog is going to die a horrible death because he can't afford to go to a hospital,” says Sarah Cleaveland, who was a lead scientist in the Serengeti initiative and remains, from her post at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, a leader in global anti-rabies efforts. “It's a disease that we just simply shouldn't have to be living with in the 21st century.”
Dog by dog
Animals are central to life in this arid, grassy region of east Africa.
At the Ginyebus, chickens strut through the center of the yard, meals almost ready to eat. Eleven head of cattle, the family's wealth, mill about in a pen attached to the tree-limb fence that defines the family's domestic enclosure, or “kaya,” in the local Sukuma language.
In a dark, protected cranny of the grain storage hut, a dog nurses the pups she gave birth to the night before.
The Ginyebus' is “Nhh076,” or “Nangale Village household No. 76,” in the ongoing research project chronicling the Serengeti Health Initiative's impact. The visitors this day include Czupryna, 31, a Northwest Sider who lives in Tanzania from August to December each year to lead the research; Chunde Bigambo, the Tanzanian who is Lincoln Park Zoo's jack-of-all-trades — equal parts scientist, driver, ambassador and translator; and Lisa Faust, the zoo's recently appointed vice president for conservation and science and one of Czupryna's doctoral advisers, who is touring the Tanzanian effort for the first time as an administrator.