“For many days after being treated… I was obsessed with the fear of deadly rabies,” Hussein told Niqash.
Another victim, student Rawa’ Ahmad, was also attacked and although she escaped without injury she said that “the psychological damage was far more complex. When I saw the dog I panicked and ran towards the street but I stumbled and fell and my veil fell off. I felt so embarrassed when people started looking at me without a veil.”
Across the country the number of stray dogs is increasing dramatically, posing a severe health threat say observers. Officials say that there are now more than 20,000 dogs in Najaf compared to 5,000 in 2007, equal to almost one dog for every 50 citizens. In December 2008 Baghdad University estimated that there are over one million stray dogs in Baghdad alone.
Reports of dog attacks are increasing and there have already been cases of rabies infections as a result of dog bites.
“Stray dogs pose a real danger in the province,” said Dr. Jawad Shakir Ali, Director of Najaf’s Public Health Directorate, pointing to the threat of “diseases and attacks by dogs infected with rabies."
According to Ali the increase in the number of dogs is due to the fact that female dogs give birth to up to six puppies twice a year. There is no doubt, however, that the pressing security concerns and violence of recent years have prevented authorities from adequately responding to the issue.
To date campaigns targeting the dogs through the use of poison or guns have been half-hearted and not achieved significant results. “In recent years we’ve implemented a number of campaigns to exterminate dogs but to no avail," said Dr. Sahib al-Musawi, head of Najaf’s veterinary hospital. Blaming the weak progress on the lack of suitable poison and ammunition and a slow bureaucratic process, al-Musawi said that the dogs are now breeding rapidly in the empty desert areas to the south of Najaf.
According to al-Musawi, "lacing bait with poison is the most effective way to eliminate stray dogs if there is awareness among the people and if they cooperate. Adequate amounts of money should be allocated and enough human resources are needed to guarantee success,” he said.
Najaf’s municipality is now launching a new campaign to reduce the number of dogs across the province. “The coming days will witness the biggest campaign ever to exterminate stray dogs by poisoning,” said Dr. Ni’mah Hasan Muhammad Ridha, head of the special committee formed to combat the problem. “We now have more that 25000 pills [of poison], but this quantity is not enough,” he said.
Elsewhere across the country similar campaigns are also being launched. In Baghdad the municipality has initiated a new drive to kill the dogs and in Karbala authorities are now offering 6,000 dinars (US $5.30) for every dog that people hand over to the municipality, dead or alive. The Ministry of Health has called on other provinces to implement similar schemes.
Observers, however, worry that it may be too late to stem the growing number of dogs. While limited and enclosed zones can be cleared, observers say it will be hard to eradicate dogs from residential areas without a more comprehensive and coordinated national plan.