Last year I spent three months in Blantyre, Malawi. My visit mainly focused on helping Mission Rabies set up its vaccination campaign.
Twelve months on and Mission Rabies has done an amazing job; its teams have not only vaccinated more than 70% of the dogs in the city of Blantyre, but also in the entire Blantyre district.
The Mission Rabies teams started their vaccination campaign again last week, repeating the mass vaccination drive throughout the city of Blantyre from May 2015.
I really enjoyed my time here last year and I am happy to be back to help more of these friendly people and their lovely dogs.
This year, the focus of my visit is on training vets and improving the welfare of the dogs in Blantyre.
The number of dogs living here is estimated to be at least 45,000 to 50,000. Almost all are owned and are living very closely with the families. Even if they don’t get stroked a lot and sleep outside, it’s obvious many Malawians keep dogs as companions – they care about their well-being and want them to be healthy.
Malawi, like many other African countries, doesn’t suffer from an overpopulation of dogs like they do in India and other Asian countries. This is because hardly any waste is on the streets, meaning free-roaming dogs can’t easily survive. On average, it seems at least 50% of puppies in a litter will not survive the first six months of their life due to lack of food and infectious diseases like parvovirus and distemper.
During the first two weeks of my visit, we ran the first surgical training course for African vets on the new premises of the Blantyre SPCA (BSPCA).
The new BSPCA shelter is still under construction, but the clinic is already built and equipped – and it’s fantastic.
WVS received a huge amount of donated items as a result of our 2015 “Equip a Clinic” appeal and we were able to send a container filled with surgical tables, a gas anaesthetic machine, a large number of boxes filled with medical supplies, an oxygen generator, two pallets of skin and surface disinfectant, dog and cat boxes and much, much more.
It was amazing to see all these supplies put to such good use at the new clinic, and WVS is grateful for the close collaboration with the BSPCA which made it possible for this course to happen – particularly staff member Defence, who worked hard every day to bring enough dogs from all over the city for the training course.
The participating vets came from Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi, and it was a mixed group of NGO workers, state vets and vets working in private practice.
The main focus was obviously on teaching best surgical methods for spay and neuter surgeries, but also on considering the animal welfare aspects of all decisions made. The vets learned to understand the meaning of the “five freedoms” when it comes to pain relief, best surgical techniques, animal shelters and euthanasia.
Many fruitful discussions took place after each lecture and it was interesting to hear some participants say he or she would take other decisions now than previously, when they weren’t aware of the aspects of animal welfare.
The teaching staff were vet and vet nurse volunteers from the UK and Ireland, plus Dr Vinay – one of the vets from the WVS International Training Centre (ITC) in India with years of teaching experience – and Cait, a vet from the US who has been working for WVS for the last 12 months, setting up the new ITC in Thailand.
Cait has now spent two months in Malawi, working incredibly hard to set up the BSPCA clinic for the training course and the sterilisation drive afterwards.
We were also lucky to have Sam and Mark from the Dogstar Foundation on board, who were happy to share their experiences in running a successful spay and neuter project in Sri Lanka.
All in it together
After finishing the training course, our team started a mass sterilisation campaign at the end of April, working alongside the Mission Rabies teams for a month.
It’s a great opportunity for all of us being able to work together, as the WVS team is not only sterilising dogs at the static vaccination points (set up in primary schools every weekend), but we are also able to respond to cases the door-to-door vaccination teams are picking up.
For example, we were able to remove a large mammary tumour that was impairing the movement of a dog. Although already 12 years old, the dog still has a great quality of life and the owner was incredibly happy when he visited the clinic after the successful operation.
A large number of dogs here suffer from transmissible venereal tumours (TVTs) that are passed from one dog to the next when mating. I have come across the largest and most horrible TVTs I have ever seen in the last week. We don’t only just sterilise these poor dogs so they can’t spread the tumours to other dogs, but we also treat them with vincristine, a chemotherapy drug that can often result in complete remission of the tumour.
Every week we are now sending out one team of vets to treat the TVT patients, administering the treatment, which is greatly improving the lives of these dogs.
Animals and children
The vaccination teams also see many dogs with old fractures, that we can help by amputating the painful legs, and we respond to calls about dogs that can’t be helped any more, but can, at least, be humanely euthanised to end their suffering.
All these patients are being looked after by an owner and it’s so nice to see how affectionately some children treat their dogs. A few days ago I watched one little boy walk off with his dog after it had undergone surgery at a primary school in Chilomoni. The dog was still very unsteady on its legs and the boy stopped every few steps, talking to and supporting it.
Even though we might often not recognise these dogs as pets because our expectations are different, we need to understand they are loved and looked after in the best way possible. In one of the poorest countries in the world, where people struggle to have enough food for themselves, this human-dog relationship is very different to what we are used to – which doesn’t mean it’s worth any less.
Proud to participate
I am very happy we can do our part to help these dogs and their owners by improving the health and quality of their dogs’ lives, by reducing the amount of puppies that have to be fed and indirectly supporting the fight against rabies. By keeping the vaccinated dog population more stable, the vaccination coverage can be kept above the needed 70% for longer.
For the next three weeks, our team of five vets and five veterinary nurses will continue to sterilise and treat as many dogs as possible, improving the animal welfare of each dog brought to us.