The successful battle against rabies in the Serengeti

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 this 90-degree October day, says his family has been taunted in the village as "hyena leftovers."

The Ginyebus know wild animals. They live 6 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 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 10-year 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.

The results have been far from prosaic. Lions and African wild dogs, already endangered predators, were dying in the Serengeti of canine distemper and rabies. Now, 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."

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 in Asia and Africa.

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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, 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.

Czupryna, an effusive, compulsively organized, first-generation Polish-American, focuses on the household dogs. She is especially interested in the new births, because she is trying to learn what happens to the size and health of an area's dog population after it starts receiving rabies vaccinations.

"I've got at least four puppies, possibly a fifth," she announces, emerging from the protected birthplace.

Domestic dogs are the key because they are the primary hosts and transmitters of rabies.

Part of the data set involves the Ginyebus' firsthand experience with rabies.

"We (have been) participating in the study because of the attack," says the father, 69-year-old Buyombo Ginyebu.

Telling of that night, the family members speak, in Sukuma, without dramatic flourish. "We just accept what we have," Buyombo Ginyebu says. "We blame the rabies and the hyena, too."

Maduhu's mother holds up her left hand to display the place where a thumb was once attached. His father pushes back his long sleeves to show wrists badly damaged from fending off the carnivore. Maduhu, just 7 when he was bitten on the nose and cheek, doesn't have to make any special effort to show what happened to him, nor can he hide it.

In the developed world, it is easy to think almost nothing about rabies. We know the legends, of course. Viciousness. Depravity. A disease that, unless treated before symptoms appear, is nearly 100 percent fatal and horrific in its final throes.

We know that Louis Pasteur took care of all that. In 1885, the French scientist and his team developed the first working vaccine by spreading rabies to rabbits, then drying their infected nerve tissue and mixing it into a potion. A 9-year-old boy bitten by a rabid dog was the first human recipient, and Pasteur's gamble worked. Instead of contracting rabies, the boy produced antibodies that fought off the virus before it spread through his nervous system into the brain.

Now — in most of the developed world, at least — domestic dogs, once rabies' greatest transmitters, get annual vaccine shots, and incidence of the disease is reduced to the occasional bite from an infected bat, fox or raccoon. In the United States, human deaths related to rabies have declined to one or two a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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 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. "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.

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.

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. "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."

The successful battle against rabies in the Serengeti 12/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 3:31am]

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