BANGKOK -- Thailand has set a target of becoming a rabies-free country by 2020, and the government has put the nation on full alert following the worst infection rate in nearly four decades.
Experts on public health are calling for immediate and comprehensive cooperation from the government, local authorities and the public, warning that the current situation is at a critical point.
At least seven people have died of rabies so far this year, increasing at a faster rate than last year, when 11 people died of the disease. That has set off alarms and forced the government to announce a serious outbreak of rabies, with millions of doses of vaccines being sent to local administrations nationwide.
"This is a critical level and what we, as veterinarians, can do is to help vaccinate dogs and cats as much as we can in order to help stop the outbreak," said Prof. Roongroje Thanawongnuwech, the dean of Faculty of Veterinary Science at Chulalongkorn University.
Hospitals, governmental buildings and educational institutes across the country are being used as the government's public-relations arms with brochures, campaigns and banners containing a message that encourages pet owners to vaccinate their dogs and cats to help halt the outbreak.
Wichan Pawan, a senior official at the Department of Livestock Development, or DLD, said the law empowered his agency to announce the rabies outbreak earlier this year and allow it to control the regions that have been reported with the disease.
So far, thirty-five of Thailand's 77 provinces have been declared as red-zones, places where the rabies virus has been discovered and under tighter surveillance.
Around 3.5 million pets have been vaccinated across the country, or roughly 45% of the 8.2 million animals that the DLD has targeted to vaccinate this year in order to prevent further outbreaks.
Although there are no specific reports about damage to livestock or the economy, authorities have kept areas under close monitoring, particularly popular tourist attractions to prevent possible damage to the tourism industry.
"We are working closely with related government agencies to keep tourist attractions under tighter surveillance, as well as asking for cooperation among tour operators to take care of tourists from being bitten by dogs, because we need to create confidence among tourists," said Aittirit Kinglek, president of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Tourism generated 2.7 trillion baht ($86.4 billion) in revenue in 2017, accounting for 17% of Thailand's gross domestic product, and the country aims to increase revenue from the industry to 3.1 trillion baht this year.
Thailand's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention played down the outbreak by saying rabies is "not a major risk" to most travelers and that no foreigner had died from the disease. Some well-known tourist attractions in the country do not allow dogs to enter the areas, including the World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya.
"We keep all tourist attractions in Ayutthaya under tighter surveillance because if only one tourist is bitten by a dog, whether it is a mad dog or not, it would hurt our tourism industry severely," said Preecha Khantapraisri, head of the local administration of Ayutthaya.
The Department of Livestock Development and other government agencies say the lack of knowledge about the cause of rabies among Thai society and the lack of a leading governmental organizations to play a comprehensive role in controlling the disease are to blame for the serious outbreak.
Some critics have even blamed a corruption case involving purchases of sub-standard and fake rabies vaccines over the past few years for the outbreak. That has forced the DLD to set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the issue, but that will not help to curb the current outbreak.
Rabies is endemic in Thailand, where the disease was first found in 1920. However, poor medical development over the years has hindered eradication of the disease.
In 1980, the death toll from rabies reached a record 370 people, prompting the government to take forceful action at making modernized medical improvements, which reduced the average annual mortality rate to roughly 10. Still, the deadly virus lingers.
The disease is spread to humans and other mammals through the bites and saliva of an infected animal. Those infected face almost certain death unless they are treated.
It is easy for rabies to spread fast in Thailand, where millions of stray dogs -- common carriers of the disease -- can be found in some public places, such as Buddhist temples.
In predominantly Buddhist Thailand, killing innocent people or dogs is considered a great sin. Just as some groups protest against the death penalty, some pet lovers strongly oppose the "set zero" method, which would allow the culling of infected dogs.
Meanwhile, a growing number of dogs and cats are being abandoned at Buddhist temples across the country, placing the burden of their care on monks.
Thailand had as many as 700,000 stray dogs in 2014, when the National Statistical Office last conducted a survey.
In Bangkok alone, the Dog Control and Shelter Section of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration can take care of roughly 5,000 stray dogs annually at a cost of approximately 15 million baht. That is just 5% of the 100,000 stray dogs believed to be in the capital.
Apart from government dog shelters, many private individuals or private foundations can easily rescue a stray and keep it at their residence out of pure sympathy for the animal.
However, the sanitary of such places is difficult to investigate, and Thai laws are not effective in controlling or punishing those who abandon their dogs and those who fail to standardize private animal shelters.
Ruen Thananun, a 61-year-old retired civil servant, takes care of more than 400 stray dogs in her neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangkok. She says all dogs and cats in her area are vaccinated.
However, when she was asked about the seriousness of the country's rabies outbreak, Ruen told the Nikkei Asian Review, "I don't know why the dogs went mad, I think it is because of the hot weather in Thailand."
Local administrations routinely get complaints from residents about noise and unpleasant odors, since many Thais, like Ruen, are caring for stray dogs.
The current outbreak has served as a wake-up call for the government and local authorities. The goal to make Thailand rabies free by 2020 will comply with the aim of the World Health Organization, which is expected to announce a "rabies-free ASEAN" by 2030 at an annual meeting in Nepal next month, according to the Department of Livestock Development.
But experts say that with the persistent problem of lack of knowledge and appropriate laws and management, Thailand will likely need more time to achieve its goal.