Concluding the year 2020, strange as it was – a message from our Executive Director.
Our work was, like for everyone else, significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our planned activities became impossible to implement as originally envisaged. However, in adapting to the global disaster, we have developed new approaches to get things done and these are in fact likely to maintain much value in a non-pandemic future.
Among these were the strategies and tools developed for very successful virtual workshops in Africa - for the development and/or refinement of national strategies for rabies elimination based on a stepwise intersectoral One Health approach. We even found that laboratory diagnostic and field surveillance training could be highly effective on a virtual platform. In those instances where vaccination campaigns were affected, delays presented us with more time to plan and strategize – a blessing in disguise after seeing the results once we were able to travel and continue with campaigns as planned.
Elsewhere, our work relating to community-based rabies surveillance in the Philippines was initially affected not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by polio outbreaks. But here, we also found that the unexpected benefits of alternative solutions far outperformed our expectations and promise to continue to have much value in the future.
With the world focused on COVID-19, our greatest concern was that World Rabies Day – the global day to raise awareness about rabies – would take a back seat. How we were wrong! World Rabies Day this year broke new records, with more people participating in the Awards voting than ever before, demonstrating true solidarity and commitment to recognizing rabies champions, even in the toughest of times.
The GARC Education Platform (GEP) continued to grow, reaching new countries around the world. For example, in the case of the Rabies Educator Certificate, there are now graduates in 124 different countries worldwide.
But these programmatic achievements are discussed in more detail elsewhere and I want to reflect for a moment on the lessons I have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to rabies control and elimination in general.
- One Health: I think the world is suddenly much better prepared to understand the link between animal and human diseases and health. From this perspective, our revitalized messaging around rabies as a zoonosis and a model disease to be controlled by a dynamic One Health approach should find much broader understanding and appeal.
- Diagnosis (testing), surveillance, data, and transparency: These issues have been, and still are, key to the global COVID-19 response. Only at the hand of this is it possible to (1) understand the burden of the disease; (2) design intervention strategies based on epidemiological data and; (3) determine the impact (success or failure) of intervention strategies. These are of course the key arguments we make for a global rabies control and elimination strategy. Herein lies the entire value and intention of the GARC Rabies Epidemiological Bulletin – a transparent system to continually measure all the dynamic metrics of rabies in each country of the dog-rabies endemic world.
- Health inequity: We constantly point out that rabies disproportionally affects the poor. COVID-19 dramatically illustrated the impact of health inequity and this has, to some degree, become a vigorous global narrative that should also impact on our ability to advocate for rabies prevention in poor rural communities of the dog-rabies endemic world.
- Vaccines: Although vaccine hesitancy has in recent years become an unexpected scourge, the race for COVID-19 vaccines was unprecedented, and the development and roll-out of such vaccines is the most critical breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus. I believe that this will lead to a renewed appreciation of those diseases that we have effective vaccines for – including of course, rabies.
- Unified global approach, clear communication and a united, connected strategy: A unified and connected global approach is essential to effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global response has arguably been imperfect in many of these respects as, understandably, we had so much to learn about this new disease. In the case of rabies, I would argue that the COVID-19 experience provides strong support for Zero-by-30, the global strategic plan to eliminate dog-mediated rabies, developed by the tripartite and GARC in 2016/17 under the banner of United Against Rabies.
- Individual nations must take control (country-centric global strategy), decisive leadership makes the difference: In the COVID-19 pandemic, each and every nation was taking the full responsibility for its own interventions towards the protection of their citizens. It was further shown that those countries with decisive leadership were most successful in their responses to COVID-19. This is strong validation of our absolute resolve that rabies elimination should be country-centric, driven by the national governments per se, if rabies elimination is ever to be achieved.
With these musings, I would like to sincerely thank all the collaborators, supporters and donors of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, as well as all the staff and volunteers – together you keep us going in the right direction and help us to make a real difference in the lives of so many people and animals across the dog rabies endemic world.
I wish you all a very happy festive season and may we be less virtual as a new year unfolds in 2021!
Global Alliance for Rabies Control