A Christian-majority province in Indonesia is struggling to prevent a rabies outbreak from spreading, raising alarm in the neighboring Catholic-majority country of Timor-Leste.
The government of East Nusa Tenggara has reported that the viral disease, often transmitted through the bite of rabid animals like dogs and cats, is spreading in the province, which shares a border with Timor-Leste.
The disease caused two deaths, including an eight-year-old girl, in East Nusa Tenggara in the past week while the neighboring island of Flores was put on alert in the wake of the outbreak.
The province has recorded a total of five deaths so far this year out of 11 cases across the nation.
Melky Angsar, the head of the province's animal health division, said that 139 people have been bitten by dogs, suspected of being infected with rabies, so far this year.
Most cases were reported in 43 villages in the South Central Timor district.
In East Nusa Tenggara, with a population of 5.5 million – almost 90 percent of whom are Christian – many families keep dogs, which are allowed to roam freely.
In addition to guarding the house, dogs also help hunt wild boar which is eaten during traditional festivals.
Church leaders in the area have joined hands with the government in spreading awareness about rabies.
During Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Penfui Catholic Church in Kupang, the provincial capital, on June 4, parish priest Father Andreas Sikka asked Catholics to tether or cage their dogs.
"You choose, die from being bitten by a rabid dog, or the dog is taken into custody for the safety of you and the surrounding community," the priest said.
Imran Pambudi, director of prevention and control of infectious diseases at Indonesia's health ministry, said that 95 percent of human rabies cases in Indonesia resulted from infected dogs.
"Rabies is a big challenge in Indonesia because in the last three years there have been an average of more than 80,000 bite cases per year and an average of 68 deaths," he said during a press conference on June 2.
Pambudi said 26 out of 38 provinces in Indonesia were recorded as endemic to rabies. He said most deaths were caused by delays in seeking vaccine shots.
The agriculture ministry is carrying out a mass vaccination of dogs in East Nusa Tenggara with an allocation of 20,000 doses since June 1.
"Hopefully there will be an increase in public awareness about the importance of preventing rabies by not allowing dogs to roam outside the house to suppress the spread of the rabies virus," said Nuryani Zainuddin, director of animal health at the ministry.
Meanwhile, in Timor-Leste, Domingos Gusmao, director general of the country's animal husbandry and veterinary health department, asked people to remain vigilant over the possibility of cross-border transmission as a result of the East Nusa Tenggara outbreak.
"We warn people who always cross the border not to bring in dogs," he said. "Even though they don't have signs of being infected by rabies, they could have been infected, because the incubation period is quite long," he added.