Around 3 am this morning, I was awoken by the padding of small paws on my chest. It was only the second time I have had a mammal crawling on me as I slept (the first time being a rat in Laos, ask me if you want to hear a very long story of that adventure). This time I am proud that I did not leap up and scream to wake the neighbors. I knew exactly who it was this time: the maybe-rabid kitten.
Last night the girls had a special evening program –a film about rabies, complete with graphic video of actual patients frothing at the mouth, screaming against their restraints, and acting, well, rabid. The staff here at My Refuge House felt it was necessary to get real about the disease, because the stray kitten that has been wandering the compound lately entered one of the dorms and bit two girls.
I have been told by earnest nurses at the travel clinic that I must always be within 24 hours of a rabies vaccination… any more delay and a bite would mean certain death. So I was very concerned when I found out that the girls, bitten on Thursday night, wouldn’t get treatment until Monday. That’s when the local clinic dispenses shots. (The private hospital charges $200 per shot, prohibitive for most people here.) The neighboring town refused to treat our girls, since they weren’t city residents. So we waited until Monday for shots that are subsidized by the government, ie, free.
It turns out that there’s a lot I didn’t know about rabies. You can wait for longer than 24 hours, especially if the bite or scratch is lower in the body (takes longer to work its way up to your brain). But of course the sooner the better. Shockingly, the virus sometimes can lay dormant in your body for years, apparently one poor man had it surface 30 years after exposure as a child. There are two kinds of rabies, "furious" (which is the kind of rabies we usually imagine, with agitated behavior, hydrophobia, and death after a few days, and "paralytic," in which the person’s muscles slowly start to become paralyzed, the person falls into a coma, and then eventually dies.
So on Monday I went with the girls and MRH’s nurse to the clinic. At least 40 people were in the waiting room by 9 am… Remember, this is a clinic exclusively for animal bites. Apparently, children are the most likely to be infected by rabies, and 55,000 people die every year from it, mostly in Africa and Asia.
The MRH nurse had to wait to get a number, and then wait two hours to get the shots. One girl got a tetanus shot thrown in as well. They have to go back Thursday and next Monday for more injections, and we have to watch the kitten to see if it dies. If it’s still alive by April 27 we are in the clear.
So my 3 am visitor was most unwelcome. She had jumped up through the open window to land in my bunk – and I knew I had to get her out if I wanted to sleep again. But I didn’t dare go near her, and she was clearly craving company, mewling and then stretching out and making herself at home next to the bed.
And I don’t have to point it out: she’s a cute kitten. I could see why the girls were saying “no, this kitten is not dangerous!” and still wanting to play with it. She is diminutive, with orange stripes, and wants to rub up against you. I’m sure she just wanted to snuggle (ya, maybe with a few rabid nips thrown in.) So I had to rely on that most versatile of production gear, my monopod, and chase her out.
Rabies is a disease that has been an afterthought for me, and I imagine, for most Americans. We don’t have stray dogs roaming the streets. Our pets have Halloween costumes and spa treatments. Pet owners are moralistic about spaying and neutering, and most of us are more concerned about infection from a bat. So it’s been yet another wake up call for me to see how disruptive this affliction is for so many people, and to think that people actually still die from this totally preventable disease.
The sad postscript to this story is that now the girls also are forbidden from playing with the puppies. Of course they can’t risk any more girls being exposed – staff time and school time all wasted in line at the clinic –but the puppies are so adorable.
The good news is that most of the puppies are already spoken for (the light brown one, George, is fought over by the girls and staffers alike) and will go to welcoming homes. Hopefully the same will be true for the questionable kitten.