A rabies epidemic in Bali has killed 130 people. Now 275,000 half-wild dogs are being vaccinated.
Rabies is island-hopping towards Australia through the Indonesian archipelago and is about 600km north of Darwin on the island of Pulau Larat, where it killed 19 people in 2010.
Helen Scott Orr, a former NSW chief veterinary officer working with the Indonesian government to help eradicate rabies from Bali, said the risk to Australia was increasing as more Indonesian islands fell to the disease.
Rabies has spread to 24 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces.
“If it gets into West Papua, it is strongly likely that it will spread slowly and inexorably down through the entire island of Papua New Guinea, in which case it would be extremely close to our borders across the Torres Strait,” Dr Scott Orr said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry — which oversees the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy — said rabies outbreaks on the Indonesian islands of Flores, Bali, Pulau Larat and Ambon had increased the risk of the disease entering Australia.
She said the “most likely potential pathway into remote northern Australia is an illegally imported, infected animal arriving by boat”.
She said the department was controlling border movements of animals across the Torres Strait, increasing surveillance of animal health and educating northern populations about the disease.
Dr Scott Orr fears that indigenous communities will be hardest hit if rabies crosses Torres Strait.
“I understand that in northern Australia there are many indigenous communities with quite large groups of semi-free-living dogs that aren’t restrained and roam around,” Dr Scott Orr said.
“Those dogs, if they became infected, obviously would become a threat to the communities, to the safety of all the people in those communities. It’s a terrible and terrifying disease when it occurs.”
Rabies kills at least 55,000 people worldwide a year. Experts suspect that a rabid dog brought on a fishing boat from Sulawesi or Flores islands introduced the disease to Bali, where it has killed more than 130 people since 2008.
Teams of dog catchers from Bali Animal Welfare Association have worked with the Indonesian government to vaccinate more than 275,000 canines — a costly exercise that attracted funding from the Australian government’s AusAID program and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
BAWA director Janice Girardi said Australia’s eagerness to support the vaccination program was motivated partly by humanitarian concern, but also as insurance to keep rabies clear of its borders.
“There’s no rabies in Australia other than bat rabies, so I know it’s a huge concern for Australia should rabies arrive on boats from the Indonesian islands,” she said.
Dr Scott Orr believes Australia’s best hope of remaining rabies-free is by helping our northern neighbours control the disease.
“We would like to see it progressively eradicated from eastern Indonesia and pushed back and right out of the region, if we could,” she said.
“If rabies got established in the wild dog population in northern Australia, for example, there would need to be a very sustained campaign to eradicate it. And experience from around the world has shown that to eradicate it from feral or wild populations of animals, you need to have aerial distribution of vaccine by baits.
“Doing that across a large part of Northern Australia would be a horrendously expensive and difficult and long-term operation.”