Mission Rabies Cambodia: A day in Phnom Penh

Dr Victoria returns from her Mission Rabies trip in Cambodia. Read about her amazing journey.

My 5:15 alarm starts to beep. My roommate, Beth, is still sleeping. I silently pull on my running kit, make my way bleary-eyed down the stairs and say hello to the security guard. It’s 27 degrees and 90% humidity, flocks of scooters are already whizzing by and the street vendors are setting up for the day. One foot in front of the other, I weave my way down the bustling streets across to the promenade, one of the few pedestrianised open spaces in the city. Many of the locals are stepping in sync to the Khmer-adapted pop classics blaring from the speakers of a number of open-air aerobic classes.

After my usual six kilometres up to the lamppost and back, Beth is up and we head down to breakfast. I have never been able to face rice in the morning, so I fill my bowl with rather exorbitantly priced muesli and soymilk from “Super-Duper”. We, the eight international volunteers, chatter amongst ourselves, discussing what area the team leader has assigned for us today, giggling over yesterday’s inevitable array of silly mishaps and each sharing our most recent cultural observations. Fuelled for the day, we are off in our tuk-tuks by 7am over to Animal Rescue Cambodia (ARC), where we each pair up with our local volunteer and collect our kit for the day.

My buddy’s name in Kompheak, a second-year vet student at one of the local universities. His English isn’t perfect, but good enough to mock me for “being senior”. We have spent the last two weeks together, walking up and down the residential streets in the beating sun, asking everyone we see whether they have “chhke” (dog). Barring universally understood gesturing, I am entirely dependent on Kompheak to communicate with the locals. Today we are in a suburban industrial area, the homes are simple brick with tin roofs and on the veranda, each has a number of wooden looms inharmoniously rattling away. Two dogs run up the front as we pass by the next house. Time for our usual routine: Kompheak tries to get the owner’s attention as I check the vaccination box to ensure everything is ready. I watch him hand over and point to the leaflets describing the risks of rabies, otherwise oft referred to as “crazy dog disease”, and the importance of vaccination. He gives me the nod - the owner has given consent. Now for the hard part: unlike Australia, many of the dogs are only semi-owned and most of them are free-roaming. They tend to be less socialised than we are used to, always wary of strangers and sometimes rather feral. The owner has managed to restrain one of the dogs between her legs. I take a deep breath in, hoping she is holding the head tightly, subcutaneously inject the inactivated virus, and mark the shoulders with a farm marking pen. We note details of the dog and ownership status on a specially designed app aimed to improve our understanding of the disease within the region.

We repeat the process for the next dog, the next house, the next village, the next district. From slums along the riverside to small holdings in rural districts around the city, the Khmer people certainly have one thing in common: a genuine hospitality and abundant generosity, even in the poorest areas. At the end of the day, we return wearily to ARC laden with bottles of drinking water and fresh fruit to re-group, re-stock and refresh the app.

Like many aspects of life, my time in Cambodia was simultaneously daunting and inspiring. Whilst, as a team, we vaccinated over 6000 dogs in just 10 days, a record for any Mission Rabies pilot project, this often felt like a drop in the ocean in relation to the number of dogs not only in the city, but the whole country. Cambodia has the highest number of deaths per capita due to rabies in Southern Asia and our estimates indicate that there are over 35,000 dogs in Phnom Penh alone. To achieve eradication through herd immunity, we aim to vaccinate 70% of the canine population. Cambodia’s fight against rabies has a long way to go but we hope the success of this project will serve as the foundation for a national programme supported by a collaborative effort from the government, local NGOs as well as both the human and veterinary profession. After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.