Julie Kelly, DVM, a veterinarian at VCA Aspenwood Animal Hospital, loves Africa almost as much as she loves caring for animals. So, when she heard about an opportunity to have a significant impact on the country’s domestic animal and human populations through the African Network on Animal Welfare (ANAW), she immediately volunteered.

The program, dubbed “Together Against Rabies,” was developed with the goal of eradicating human rabies by 2030 through mass vaccination campaigns. The program targets Machakos and Taita-Taveta counties, areas with the highest prevalence of rabies in Africa, since dogs and cats often get rabies from wild animals in neighboring Tsavo National Park. Human mortality from canine rabies is a worldwide issue, with about 43.6% of the cases occurring in Africa. 

Dr. Kelly’s first trip was in 2009. Since then, the program has grown exponentially and evolved into an effort that’s as much about educating pet owners as it is about vaccination. Although the 2020 trip was cancelled due to concerns related to COVID-19, the team went back to Africa this year, vaccinating and treating close to 8,000 dogs, cats, and donkeys over the course of seven days.

In addition to rabies vaccines, the program provides parasiticides, deworming and various other medical treatments. These services are life-saving for domestic animals in Machakos and Taita-Taveta counties, where financial restraints and accessibility are barriers to proper veterinary care. Equally important is the education volunteers provide to residents.

Cultural attitudes toward dogs are a key factor in the rabies problem in Africa, where dogs haven’t traditionally been viewed as part of a family. They’re usually kept tethered outdoors and serve the purpose of warning family members against wildlife and human intruders. Because of the way they are treated, dogs are often aggressive. 

“Understandably, the people we meet are often afraid of dogs, especially the children,” Dr. Kelly explains. “In fact, the highest incidence in rabies is among schoolchildren who are bitten on their way to school.”

It’s not uncommon for dogs to be dragged into clinics with chains, rope or snare wire wrapped so tightly around their necks that they can barely breathe and no longer swallow. Dr. Kelly says one of the highlights of the most recent trip was having the opportunity to replace twine that had been tied tightly around the necks of two small dogs with proper collars while a large group of children watched.

“As I removed the twine and put collars on the dogs, I demonstrated how to hold and gently pet the dog,” says Dr. Kelly. “It was this wonderful moment where I was able to show them what you can do with gentle handling. Teaching kids is where we can make the most impact.”

The special collars volunteers hand out serve another purpose – they indicate that the dogs have been vaccinated against rabies, which also helps reduce fear. Owners are provided leashes and trained how to properly walk a dog on a leash.
“It’s amazing to see the transformation, especially among the children,” says Dr. Kelly. “They come to our clinic afraid of their dogs, and by the time they leave, they’re petting and playing with them.”

Volunteers have the pleasure of seeing many of the same appreciative clients each year, allowing them to observe the long-term benefits of the program. Dr. Kelly has noticed that domestic animals in Machakos and Taita-Taveta counties are often better fed, have less parasites and are generally treated better than they were she first joined the program.

Dr. Kelly has been able to recruit other VCA Associates over the years to join her on the trip. Volunteers pay their own way and use vacation time for the trip, which Dr. Kelly calls an “indescribable cultural experience.” Dr. Kelly’s daughter Jenna, a high school student who hopes to one day become a veterinarian, joined her this year for the second time.

“It’s a wonderful experience for young people who have an interest in working in veterinary care,” says Dr. Kelly. “Every person who joins us comes back with a renewed passion for animal health. My experiences in Africa carry me through the year.”

Since the program depends on donations for supplies, Dr. Kelly works with vendor partners to secure medication. The TV station Denver7 is collaborating with her on special drive to collect 10,000 collars for upcoming trips.

“I can’t stress how important donations are to our work, especially the medication,” says Dr. Kelly. “We take many preventatives for granted in the United States, but parasites are still a major source of death in Africa.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the effort can donate through the ANAW website, and note that the gift is “for the rabies clinics.” Those interested in joining Dr. Kelly on a future trip can learn more on her website.

Thank you Dr. Kelly, and all of the participating VCA Associates for volunteering your time, personal funds and resources to improving animal and human health across the globe.
“"Teaching kids is where we can make the most impact," says Dr. Kelly. ”