New app rollout easing fight against rabies in Mara region

13Feb 2020
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
New app rollout easing fight against rabies in Mara region

​​​​​​​SCIENTISTS working in Tanzania have developed a new internet  application that can determine if a dog was vaccinated for the rabies virus with a cellphone camera image—  billed as a game changer in  the fight against the disease.

The research team based out of the Washington State University (WSU) Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health is working with PiP My Pet, the firm that developed a mobile application using facial recognition to reunite lost pets with their owners.

A statement published yesterday by WSU said that rather than locate the lost animals, the company designed a new app to track which dogs were vaccinated for the rabies virus, and more importantly which dogs still require the vaccine.

The app is currently being rolled out in a series of field trials as part of the National Institute of Health, a government agency now handling a vaccination trial in Mara region, it said.

The trial, which will provide the first mass dog vaccination against rabies in the region is aimed at testing the efficacy of two delivery strategies.

First, it uses teams of vaccinators in vehicles to visit each village in turn, whilst the second uses village-based vaccinators to deliver mass vaccination of dogs.

“This technology means we don’t have to insert expensive microchips to identify each vaccinated dog,” explains Felix Lankester, director of the WSU Rabies Free Tanzania program. “It saves us time and money, both very important commodities in our mission to eliminate human rabies in East Africa.”

Each microchip costs about $1 US, which quickly adds up when you consider that the WSU rabies elimination campaign vaccinated more than 275,000 dogs in 2019 in Kenya and Tanzania. The effort is now nearing two million vaccinations.

The World Health Organization affirms that rabies kills about 59,000 people every year, mostly in Africa and Asia, where 95 percent of human rabies cases occur.  More than 99 percent of human rabies cases are due to transmission from rabid dogs.

“People in the West are often surprised to hear that in East Africa rabies kills so many people each year and mostly children,” Lankester said. “Because we no longer need to insert microchips into dogs, this technology speeds up our process so we can vaccinate more dogs at a lower cost, and in turn prevent loss of lives.”

Philip Rooyakkers, CEO of PiP My Pet, said it took about a year of addressing challenges before the app could be rolled out, one of the biggest being a way for the app to backup data in the field, miles from internet capability.

Rooyakkers stands by his product and its accuracy.

“Really early on we discovered that if we look at the current state of human facial recognition technology, you couldn’t use it for animals,” Rooyakkers said. “Human faces are oval, we know where the ears are, we know where the nose is, although someone may have glasses on, all that is relatively easy to overcome compared to dogs and cats whose faces vary so much in shape.”

To address those limitations, the technology provides images of the five most closely recognized dogs in the database and allows the vaccinator to narrow from there, he explained.

“We filter those by male and female, body scars, torn ears, other identifying markers and GPS data points that are stored as part of that file,” he said. “Combined with the facial recognition component all of this data make the technology very accurate.”

Rooyakkers said he chose to waive the app’s licensing fee for the Allen School.

“I do believe we have a moral obligation to help in this situation,” he said.

Lankester said the app’s geofencing tool also provides researchers the opportunity to compare vaccination rates and strategies in both arms of the Mara region trial, which could help determine strategies to use in the future.

“Not only could this technology improve the efficiency with which we roll out mass dog vaccination across Tanzania right now, it could tell us which vaccination strategies are most effective moving forward,” the director asserted.

 “That could be valuable information as we try to meet the World Health Organization’s goal to eliminate rabies by 2030,” he added.

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