The Bali health agency has lowered the rabies alert level. Although it did not specify the current level of vigilance, the agency officials claim to have successfully brought the spread of the disease on the island under control.
According to the agency, 26 people died of rabies last year, a significant decline from 83 in the previous year. The drop in rabies cases followed a mass vaccination and selected culling, it said.
A round of applause should go to all Balinese, who, I know for sure, since the first rabies outbreak in 2008, have rolled up their sleeves to work day and night to curb the spread of the deadly disease. To date, they are doing their best to prevent more human fatalities from rabies.
They have done all they can to make sure the province remains a haven for tourists from across the world, rather than for mad dogs.
But the question is whether the health agency’s announcement is good news or bad? From a risk communications perspective, the health agency’s claim sends good news only if it does not open the door to complacency.
Lessons learned from the previous public health crisis responses showed us that authorities often ended up playing down the threat. Control measures for bird flu, malaria, dengue fever and other infectious disease outbreaks tended to weaken soon after the government’s responses demonstrated early successes.
Unfortunately, the government, as well as the public, oftentimes proclaims a victory against the illnesses without even realizing that it has won only a battle, not the war.
Bali health authorities claim they are still working to educate the public on the importance of getting immediate treatment after being bitten by a dog.
After years of scary tactics played by the administration and its partners, who would dare not see the doctor to get the rabies vaccines after being bitten by a dog?
Although it remains vital to tell Balinese how deadly rabies is; it should no longer become the prime message. The real challenge now is persuading Bali people to routinely vaccinate their dogs — at their own expense.
No doubt the Hindu-Bali culture sees the inseparable role dogs play in rites and ceremonies. Thus, eliminating dogs from the island is impossible.
However, the island should now allow healthy dogs to maintain its charm as the world’s tourist hub. Public participation is key to meeting this goal.
The problem is the province’s veterinary officials cannot, and may never be able to, take care of all dogs living and roaming across the island.
With an estimated dog population of more than 300,000, it is too huge a task for the vets to estimate how many new, unvaccinated dogs need to be vaccinated each year. Let alone the fact that over 70 percent of Bali canines roam around freely.
It will be very difficult for the province’s animal health authority to set aside an annual budget to fund routine mass vaccinations like the one that they are doing now. Not because they do not care, but the province also faces other health and welfare problems.
Plus, foreign donor agencies and international NGOs, who are now partly funding anti-rabies campaigns in Bali, will not support the campaign forever.
They will eventually shift their focus to other parts of the world that need their assistance.
Therefore, to help Bali people from falling into the trap of complacency, the administration needs to send out a new message that routine vaccination is an essential part of owning dogs.
This is the time when the administration should say “the health of your dogs is in your hands because it also affects the health of your community”.
I am sure the Balinese want to regain the rabies-free status. I firmly believe that they can take the initiatives on themselves. Behavior change is possible. The Balinese have amazed the world by adapting to various situations that have sparked sustainable changes while at the same time preserving their identity.
The peaceful blend between external cultural values and the Bali-Hindu tradition are widely seen in their modern-age arts performances and creations.
I am also confident that we, non-Balinese Indonesians, will support whatever initiative to keep the island of paradise free from any deadly threat. Even if it means keeping our sick dogs out of Bali.
Bali tourism has contributed almost half of our foreign exchange from the industry. In short, Bali’s safety is Indonesia’s safety.
And thus, self-satisfaction is not an option. Ridding Bali of rabies, and maintaining it that way, is not an impossible mission. History tells us that prior to 2008; we all succeeded in safeguarding the island from rabies.
Should a new voluntary, community-based vaccination program be introduced and a fresh campaign launched to aim a sustainable behavior change, then we can rest assured that the announcement will only lead to more good news coming out of the island.
The French General Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “with good news nothing presses”.
Well. We are not Napoleon’s soldiers. And we have our own belief that good news is just good news. Let us hope it motivates us to do better.
The writer is a behavior change communications specialist and a manager of Social Engagement at the IndoPacific Edelman public engagement firm. He provides communications counsel to the Bali Province Livestock and Animal Health Office.