A Survey of Dog Owners in Remote Northern Australian Indigenous Communities to Inform Rabies Incursion Planning02 May 2016
Australia is underprepared for a rabies incursion due to a lack of information about how a rabies outbreak would spread within the susceptible canine populations and which control strategies would be best to control it. The aim of this study was to collect information to parameterize a recently developed dog rabies spread model as well as use this information to gauge how the community would accept potential control strategies. Such information–together with model outputs–would be used to inform decision makers on the best control strategies and improve Australia’s preparedness against a canine rabies incursion. The parameters this study focussed on were detection time, vaccination rates and dog-culling and dog movement restriction compliance. A cross-sectional survey of 31 dog-owners, using a questionnaire, was undertaken in the five communities of the Northern Peninsular Area (NPA) in northern Australia regarding community dog movements, veterinary visits, reporting systems, perceptions of sick dogs and potential human behaviours during hypothetical rabies outbreaks. It highlighted the significant shortfalls in veterinary care that would need to be vastly improved during an outbreak, who educational programs should be targeted towards and which dog movements should be restricted. The results indicate that men were significantly more likely than women to allow their dogs to roam and to move their dogs. The current low vaccination rate of 12% highlighted the limited veterinary services that would need to be substantially increased to achieve effective rabies control. Participation in mass vaccination was accepted by 100% of the respondents. There was lower acceptance for other possible rabies control strategies with 10–20% of the respondents stating a resistance to both a mass culling program and a ban on dog movements. Consequently, movement bans and mass dog culling would have limited effectiveness as a control strategy in the NPA community. More than half of the respondents said that they would report their sick dogs within a week. This would lead to a much more optimistic rabies detection time than observed in other regions with recent dog rabies outbreaks. Findings from this study can be used to parameterize a recently developed dog rabies spread model as well as to develop informed policies for managing a future rabies incursion, thus improving Australia’s preparedness against a canine rabies incursion. Author Summary Australia is underprepared for a rabies incursion due to limited information about how a rabies outbreak would behave and which control strategies would be best to control it. A disease spread model of rabies has been developed to help policy-makers decide on the best response to a rabies incursion. However, data to inform this model are lacking. Therefore, the aim of this study was to gather information to parameterize the existing rabies spread model and to gauge how the community would accept potential control strategies. A survey of dog-owners, using a questionnaire, was undertaken in five remote, indigenous communities in northern Australia. We found that compared to women, men were more likely to allow their dogs to roam and to move their dogs. The current vaccination rates in these dog populations are low due to limited veterinary services. This would make delivery of vaccine in the event of a rabies incursion potentially challenging. However, compliance of dog owners with mass vaccination campaigns would be high. However, compliance with movement control of dogs might be problematic, as would the mass culling of dogs, although, rabies detection following an incursion could optimistically occur within a week.