Lincoln Park Zoo works to eradicate rabies in Africa

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Through science and custom, rabies has been reduced to a relic of a darker past.

But in the developing world, in parts of Africa and Asia, science wasn't sure that domestic dogs were the transmitters. It wasn't sure how many dogs were, in fact, domestic: To Western eyes, all of the dogs — sleeping outside, foraging for food — looked a little wild.

"There was so much in the literature saying there's no point trying to control rabies in Africa,” says Cleaveland, the Glasgow epidemiologist. “All of these reasons were really sort of barriers to doing anything about rabies."

And because people lacked cash and education, and rabies treatment was expensive and often distant, thousands of people were dying each year of bites from rabid animals.

That was the state of things when Cleaveland began working in Tanzania in the 1990s. Not only were people dying, but canine distemper was ravaging the Serengeti's lion population, eventually killing a third of the estimated 3,000 lions living there. The rabies virus was even more lethal to the park's African wild dogs: A much smaller population disappeared, going off to die, it was theorized, in underground dens.

After an effective trial project, Cleaveland and her colleagues won National Science Foundation grants to, in part, test the Western model of rabies prevention, beginning in 2003. They would inoculate the dogs in villages bordering the park, testing their theory that the viruses were entering park animals through contact with domestic dogs.

Known then as the Carnivore Disease Project, it was able to prove two things quickly.

First: There were few stray dogs in Tanzania, meaning that previous assumptions were wrong, and, if owners bought into the project, dogs could be vaccinated in rates sufficient to be effective.

Second: Vaccinating the dogs was seemingly wiping out the incidence of rabies, not only in park animals but also in people. In lions, meanwhile, the canine distemper epidemic faded to sporadic cases.

"By year three, this was, like, ‘Wow,'” says Dominic Travis, the Lincoln Park Zoo's former conservation vice president, who helped persuade the zoo to take over the program after year five. “There was surveillance all over the place, people taking blood, doing autopsies on animals and looking for (rabies) really hard — and starting to not find it really quickly. By year six or seven there hadn't been a case found in a few years.”

New fronts in fight

Paying for science is much easier in a project's start-up years. The glamour is in proving a new point, and big funders like to help prove new points.

"It's always challenging for large projects where you're trying to do the sustaining activities, rather than the flashy start-up,” Faust says.

But in the case of an illness such as rabies, sustainability is necessary. Experts say stopping rabies vaccination programs after starting them is almost worse than never having been there at all, because the disease will spread more quickly through a “naive” population, one that hasn't been exposed to the virus recently.

Between roughly 2000 and 2005, Lincoln Park Zoo was in the midst of a philosophical change, “from being a funder to a doer,” says Travis, and the rabies vaccination program fit the new goals.

"It was the right project at the right time for us,” says zoo CEO Kevin Bell. “We were one of the first zoos in the U.S. to have a full-time epidemiologist on staff, and we wanted to do more about zoonotic diseases. It seemed to fit a lot of things we were doing, plus we had a number of other projects going on in Tanzania.”

Those projects include analyzing the elephant population in Tarangire National Park, east of the Serengeti, and chimpanzee research, partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute, in Gombe Stream National Park, to the west.

The zoo's thinking is that, for maximum effectiveness, it's better to concentrate research work in one area, come to know its customs and officials, make the most of scarce travel dollars.

But beyond the practicalities, the real-world impact meant the vaccination work was “also cool,” says Travis. “This is a cool project.”

Zoo funds, private donors and partnerships with other institutions — especially, of late, Washington State University — have helped pay the roughly $150,000 a year it costs. Another key has been the continued willingness of pharmaceutical giant Merck to donate the vaccine, zoo officials say.

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