Suspecting Witchcraft, Cameroonian Villagers Exterminate Dogs After Spate of Biting Incidents

Fearing that witchcraft caused a series of dog biting incidents in the second half of 2013, residents of a village in Cameroon have beaten to death most of the community’s dogs.

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Suspecting Witchcraft, Cameroonian Villagers Exterminate Dogs After Spate of Biting Incidents

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BAI KUKE, CAMEROON – Monica Imeh spent four months in the hospital last year after an unleashed dog invaded her home and bit her. She believes the attack, one of three in the village last year, signals a new form of witchcraft ravaging her community.

Imeh, 39, was cooking in her kitchen in Bai Kuke, a village in southwestern Cameroon, when suddenly a dog entered the house, jumped on her and bit one of her breasts, she says. She mustered the strength to pry the dog’s jaws off her breast and to push the animal away.

Imeh calls the incident extraordinary. She had seen dogs bite people but had never seen one cling to a human for so long.

“This was pure witchcraft in daylight,” she says.

The dog that bit Imeh left her home and bit a neighbor, a fact she calls evidence of witchcraft. The neighbor was not badly injured, but Imeh nearly died of an infection that followed the biting.

A local nurse immediately gave Imeh and her neighbor an anti-tetanus serum, or ATS. Three days later, Imeh started vomiting blood. She later passed out. She was rushed to Kumba General Hospital, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, where she was admitted.

“My case was very serious, very serious,” Imeh says. “The other victim was given an ordinary ATS, and he was fine ever after. But me, I stayed in the hospital for four solid months.”

A doctor treated her wound and administered pain management but did not diagnose her illness, she says.

“The fact that the doctor couldn’t diagnose what was wrong with me was a clear indication that it was something out of the ordinary,” she says.

She blames the attack on witches and wizards.

“Some people even try to convince me that it could be rabies,” she says. “What rabies? Why did the doctor not diagnose me of rabies if that was the case?”

Imeh, who has fully recovered, says she finds it hard to believe the incident was natural.

Imeh and her neighbor were among three people bitten by free-roaming dogs in Bai Kuke in the second half of 2013. The third, a 13-year-old boy, died after the attack.

The biting incidents raised fears that witchcraft was ravaging the community, which lets its dogs roam free. Consequently, Bai Kuke residents beat most village dogs to death. Some dog owners have sold their dogs for food to protect them from inhumane treatment.

But doctors outside the village attribute the biting incidents to rabies, a viral disease that causes inflammation of the brain and violent behavior. Veterinary officials encourage hospitals to obtain proper diagnoses by sending the brains of offending dogs to diagnostic centers for analysis. The government encourages people to vaccinate their dogs against rabies.

But Bai Kuke does not have a veterinary clinic to vaccinate dogs, and most residents are not aware that they can send dogs’ brains for analysis to detect rabies. Because villagers have nearly eliminated the dog population, no biting incidents have been reported in 2014.

The spate of biting incidents was unusual for Bai Kuke. Samuel Maita, the interim chief of the village, says he had not heard of any biting cases in the village for three years before 2013.

No national statistics on dog biting cases are available, says Dr. Walters Andu, regional chief of service for veterinary services at the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries in the Northwest region.

But there have been incidents nationwide. For example, the Boyo division of the Northwest region reported four cases last year, Andu says. All four people died.

Cordelia Malle’s 13-year-old son died after a dog bit him in Bai Kuke around the time of the attacks on Imeh and her neighbor. Malle also believes that witchcraft caused the attacks.

“They say it is a kind of disease that attack[s] dogs,” she says, crying. “What kind of disease is that?”

She believes witches or wizards killed her son.

“They killed my baby for nothing,” she says. “What did my young baby do that they had to take his life?”

Malle and her son were eating in their sitting room when a neighbor’s dog came into the house and bit the boy on one of his legs. The dog gripped the leg for more than 30 seconds. A neighbor came to the rescue, hitting the dog until it freed the boy.

Villagers beat the dog to death.

Malle rushed her son to a health center in Bai Kuke. He recovered within a week. But he fell ill again two weeks later, complaining of pain in the area of the wound. Malle took him to the Mbonge District Hospital 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) away, where doctors treated his wound but did not diagnose an illness. He died still complaining of pain from the wound.

“I don’t want to think about this confusing situation,” Malle says tearfully. “Where is my son?”

Maita, the interim village chief, says the dog biting incidents surprised the villagers because they had not witnessed such attacks for years. He is not sure whether witchcraft or rabies caused the incidents.

In response to the incidents, the council of elders recommended that all dogs in the village be put down, Maita says.

“We decided that all stray dogs should be killed to avoid further bites,” he says. “We also decided that all dog owners should confine their dogs.”

Residents now beat to death dogs they see roaming in the village regardless of whether they belong to community members. Some owners have sold their dogs to people who slaughter them for food to spare them from being beaten in the street. Eating dogs is a common practice throughout Cameroon.

At the moment, only one person in the village owns a dog, and he has caged it, Maita says. Villages have killed or have sold the rest of the dogs in the community.

Andu, a veterinarian, dismisses claims that witchcraft caused the biting incidents. He insists that rabies is real and the solution is vaccination.

“Villagers keep dogs, and dog-keeping goes with responsibilities,” Andu says. “Dogs have diseases, one of which is rabies.”

Villagers commonly keep dogs for several years without vaccinating them, Andu says. When male dogs get rabies, they become aggressive and can travel long distances in search of ovulating females. They can transmit the rabies virus through saliva during mating.

Examining the dog’s brain is the only way to diagnose rabies, Andu says. The two dogs that attacked Bai Kuke villagers were killed and disposed of, so doctors could not diagnose rabies infections. Without a diagnosis, doctors could only administer blind treatment.

When a dog bites someone, villagers should kill it and cut off its head, Andu says. A veterinary specialist should then send the head to Centre Pasteur du Cameroun, the lone rabies diagnostic center in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, for examination. Only then can doctors make a diagnosis and administer the necessary treatment.

Maita, the interim chief of Bai Kuke, says villagers were unaware of the diagnostic center. The staff at the local health center knew about the diagnostic center but could do nothing because the dogs that attacked villagers had been disposed of.

Rabies manifests in different ways in infected humans, Andu says.

“The deepness of the wound and the site of the wound will determine the severity of infection,” he says. “Treatment is administered based on the two analyses.”

When veterinarians diagnose rabies in dogs that have attacked people, doctors give those people a series of anti-rabies vaccine injections, Andu says. The ministry has a vaccine that costs 11,000 Central African francs ($23) per dose. The full course of treatment consists of five doses.

But the anti-rabies vaccine is only available at referral hospitals and veterinary clinics, Andu says. It is not available at community health centers. Furthermore, some people who are at risk of rabies do not get the full course of treatment because they cannot afford it.

Patients who manifest rabies symptoms eventually die from the disease, Andu says.

While the local council of elders in Bai Kuke recommends that all dogs be put down, government officials instead encourage villagers to vaccinate their dogs.

The Cameroonian government sponsored a nationwide dog vaccination campaign last year, which it conducts every several years as funding permits, Andu says. During the campaign, dog owners can vaccinate their dogs for just half the standard cost.

The program has been effective, Andu says. In the Northwest region, 4,000 dogs were vaccinated last year.

But Andu urges dog owners to be more proactive, vaccinating their dogs regardless of whether a campaign is underway.

“I am calling on all dog owners to vaccinate their dogs annually,” he says. “Rabies is equal to death.”

The Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries urges people who suffer dog bites to report to veterinary clinics that have vaccines to treat people and animals. The ministry also recommends that people who have been bitten undergo the full course of the rabies vaccine to avoid infection.

But there is no veterinary center in Bai Kuke, so residents were unaware of the national vaccination campaign, Maita says. The villagers hardly ever vaccinate their dogs because the dog vaccines are not available locally. The anti-rabies vaccine for humans is also unavailable locally.

If dogs do have rabies, they will harm many people, Maita says. So he and the village council of elders stand by their policy of putting down all unconfined dogs.