What is the future of Lincoln Park Zoo's rabies program in Africa?

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Clutching one of the brown vaccination certificates the workers say has become a valued keepsake among dog owners in the vaccination zone, the owner waits to get called over to the coolers. (The vaccine must be kept cold, a challenge in a country with limited electricity and refrigeration.)

From there, it happens quickly. The owner tries to hold the dog steady. Dr. Imam Mzimbri, the Serengeti Health Initiative's veterinarian and project coordinator, or Chunde Bigambo, the assistant project manager, delivers the shots, which also contain parvovirus and canine distemper vaccines. The dog is protected for the next year.

"One stick, it is done,” says Mzimbri, 51, who has been with the project for four years. “We also have spray for the (dog’s) wounds and a balm for mange.”

"It's easy,” says farmer John Magesa, 30, who has brought the dog he uses for home and livestock security.

And the logic is clear: “If my dog got rabies, it would endanger my family, and all the community.”

Another of the few adults who have brought a dog is John Nyamkuro, 58, a farmer. “By vaccinating the dogs,” he says, “I can prevent (rabies) from going to humans, especially the kids.”

Although the program's founders worried about whether people would allow strangers to inject their dogs, acceptance has been easy and rapid, they say, by now even becoming an expected part of life.

“People, they like it,” says Kaneja Mangaru, 30, a worker wearing a Lincoln Park Zoo T-shirt that would appear ordinary in the zoo’s gift shop but here seems almost ironic: Along with the logo, it says “Lion Country.” “In some areas last year, we couldn't go at the usual time because a bridge was out. They kept on calling us, ‘Come to the village!’”

In a shirt, tie and dress slacks, Joseph Ogwa, the acting district livestock official for the Bunda District, observes. He and his peers could be the ones to run the vaccination program if it were to pass into Tanzanian hands.

Ogwa says he is an admirer of the program. “It's very, very effective,” he says. ”We don't have cases now. I remember 10 years ago it wasn't good because there were so many cases of rabies.”

His daughter was 12 then, he says. She was sitting on the back of his motorcycle while he stopped to talk with a friend. “The dog was hidden somewhere, and it came and bit her on the leg,” he says.

It was such unusual behavior, Ogwa immediately suspected rabies and paid “a lot of money” to get her the standard post-bite treatment, a series of shots that fight off the virus.

But few Tanzanians have Ogwa’s money or, as an animal-care worker, the knowledge to immediately fear rabies and seek proper care. A girl in a more rural area, back then, might not have been treated after such a bite. (One study in Tanzania last decade estimated that 15 to 24 percent of people bitten by suspected rabid animals did not seek medical attention.)

The way rabies works, creeping slowly through the nervous system, into the brain, its symptoms often don't show for weeks. By then it is too late to do anything but try to manage what is, by all accounts, one of the most horrific deaths humans can experience.

Planning the future

Lisa Faust did a portion of her own doctoral research in Tanzania, studying elephant demography in Tarangire National Park, to the east of the Serengeti. This is her first time back as a manager.

The Serengeti Health Initiative costs the zoo more than $110,000 a year, she says, for everything from salaries to vehicle maintenance, fuel and permits. A “substantial” portion of that tab was picked up by a private donor, Dr. Susan Sherman, a North Shore veterinarian and zoo board member.

And the overall cost is made much cheaper than it could be because Merck, the pharmaceutical company, has donated the vaccine since the program’s inception. Faust estimates the value of that contribution at more than $300,000 annually. Meanwhile, one salary disappeared from the budget when the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University hired Felix Lankester, a British researcher living in Tanzania who had been Lincoln Park Zoo’s project manager.

But losing him, at least on paper, has been a boon to the zoo, because Washington State pays Lankester's salary while he has continued to help guide the project.

Faust and Lankester meet in the Serengeti at the house the project rents on park grounds in a community of scientific outposts all named for their specialties: There are Lion House, Cheetah House and, in the zoo's case, Disease House, named with affection and irony after the first name the vaccination effort had, the Carnivore Disease Project.

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