Today (Monday) was the first official day of our pre-organised slum project: I am one of a team of nine volunteers from Ireland hosted by an inspiring human health/education charity called ASHA. I’m the only vet: the rest are from a varied background, including a doctor, nurses, educational workers and members of the public from our local church. If you’d like to read my summary of the background to ASHA, I’ve written another blog entry which you can read by clicking here.
The deal was straightforward: we committed to raising a certain amount of funds per team member to give to ASHA as a donation (and we paid our own airfares and costs out of our own pockets). ASHA then agreed to use us for a week as volunteers in one of the slums that they’re based in.
Most of our team are doing work in the ASHA community centre in the slum. With my particular interest in animals, I’ve chosen to take time away from these activities to investigate the street dog/rabies issues.
After our briefing at ASHA HQ, we travelled by minibus into the slum that will be our base this week: Mayapuri. Situated in West Delhi, this slum occupies a narrow strip of land immediately adjacent to the main railway line out of Delhi. Measuring around 3km long and only 50m wide, this strip of land has been a landing pad for immigrants arriving in Delhi from other parts of India for over forty years.
Mayapuri is an industrial zone, known as a massive car scrap yard where you can buy any spare part for any vehicle. As we walked into the area, we were surrounded by noise: metal banging against metal, drills, engines and shouting. There was grime everywhere, from ankle-deep mud underfoot to men with oil stained clothes, hands and faces. The ASHA community centre is an oasis in the centre of this mayhem: a high-walled courtyard of relative peace.
To date, animals haven’t featured in ASHA’s work: there have been so many issues with humans in need. As a vet and as a person with a passion for animal welfare, I’ve persuaded ASHA to allow me to look into the subject of street dogs and rabies in the Mayapuri slum during my week here. They’re giving me an interpreter, and Mission Rabies have devised a questionnaire for me to use. The plan is to tour the slum, interviewing residents to find out more about what’s going on with dogs and rabies.
Is there any need for extra intervention here at all? Many of the people I’ve spoken to so far don’t seem to believe that there is. ASHA’s medical people can’t remember a single case of human rabies in their slums over the past fifteen years, and they feel that people already know that if they’re bitten by a dog, they need to clean the wound carefully and visit the local government hospital for post-exposure vaccination. My survey this week will ask the people directly, and perhaps opinions may change, but to date, it seems as if ASHA areas may not be nearly as bad as the India national average. Given the India incidence rate of rabies of around 3 cases per 100000 people, you might expect a case of rabies once every three years in an area like Mayapuri with 12000 people. From what I can gather so far, this is not the case. But rabies is not yet a notifiable disease in India, which makes it impossible to track its true incidence. My questionnaire will find out from the people on the ground if they have been aware of any cases of rabies in humans.
Today was my first day in Mayapuri: I just walked around and took in first impressions. Much of it was shocking: one woman lost both her legs when hit by a train at the age of eight – this is an obvious hazard in a slum that’s ten yards away from a busy railway line. Her story of survival is inspiring: she is married with four children, and thanks to ASHA’s support, she runs a business, baking and selling pakora from a stall. She travels to and from work in a specially adapted bicycle-wheelchair.
What about the animals in Mayapuri? There are plenty of street dogs, but they seem to have a different type of life to the animals that I met in Bondi’s slum on Day Two. They have a frightened, haunted look about them, and when I went close to them, they raised a lip to snarl at me, and backed away growling. Several dogs were so lame that they were carrying one leg, as if it’s broken. Could these be dogs that have had bad experiences with some humans? If a team like Bondi’s taught children in these areas to grow up with respect and love for dogs, would this change the way that humans interact with dogs, and would that in turn change the quality of life and attitude to humans of future generations of Mayapuri street dogs?
At the moment, I have more questions that answers. My real work starts tomorrow, when I meet my interpreter, and we set out to visit the slum dwellers to try to learn their side of the story of street dogs and rabies awareness.