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Rabies can kill. This veterinarian is going to India to fight it

Updated February 9, 2024 - 8:17 am

Las Vegas veterinarian Dr. Taryn Griffith is on a worldwide mission.

She owns and operates the Spay &Neuter Center of Southern Nevada, which boasts two stand-alone offices in Las Vegas. Griffith and her team provide affordable spay-and-neuter procedures to local dogs and cats, which cuts down on animal overpopulation and, ultimately, the need for animal euthanasia.

But Griffith is also on a mission to eradicate rabies globally.

Later this month, she will travel more than 7,400 miles to Mumbai, India, to join “Mission Rabies,” whose volunteers will vaccinate thousands of dogs against rabies, which is virtually fatal to any unvaccinated animal — or person — who contracts it.

Griffith’s journey to India started in Michigan.

She received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Michigan State University in 2004. She eventually settled in Las Vegas, where she first worked in a full-service veterinary clinic.

But work soon took its toll.

“I began to get burned out,” Griffith said. Veterinarians work long hours and frequently deal with upset, angry clients, she said.

Worst of all, euthanasia is a regular and dreaded part of every full-time veterinarian’s job.

“It’s very emotionally difficult to deal with all the injuries and euthanasia,” Griffith said. If a dog or cat has “gotten to a point in their life where there isn’t anything we can do” to help the pain, then euthanasia is “better than letting them suffer.”

But some pet owners and shelters euthanize pets out of convenience, lack of money or lack of space, she said.

Identifying overcrowding as the root of the problem, Griffith embarked on a mission several years ago to reduce it.

At about the same time, local officials were zeroing in on the same problems and passed ordinances requiring the spaying or neutering of all pets older than four months, as well as requiring rabies vaccinations for these pets.

Griffith, meanwhile, took steps of her own. She bought the Spay &Neuter Center of Southern Nevada, which provided an “affordable way” for people to comply with the ordinances and prevent, or at least reduce, overpopulation.

“The cycle continues,” said Griffith, and “a lot of these pets end up at animal shelters. Some are adopted, but many are euthanized due to space.” She notes that “up to 30,000 animals per year” were euthanized before the local ordinances were passed.

‘It’s all on foot’

Industrialized countries like the United States have largely eradicated rabies through vaccination. Griffith said she hasn’t heard of a single case in Las Vegas “for years.”

But for developing countries like India, Cambodia and countries in Africa, rabies still poses a deadly threat.

To fight the disease “on the ground,” Griffith will join other “Mission Rabies” volunteers in Mumbai for one week starting Feb. 26.

Upon arriving, veterinarians will spend 12 hours each day walking the streets of Mumbai, a megacity of over 21 million people. The doctors will give free rabies vaccines to the city’s countless “street dogs,” whether they are nominally connected to a local resident or a stray.

Vaccines, Griffith emphasized, will be administered on the street, not in comfortable clinics.

“It’s all on foot,” she said.

The worldwide volunteers also have recruited native speakers, who can speak to Mumbai dog owners about the lethality of rabies.

“While we’re vaccinating the dogs, we’re also educating the public,” Griffith said. “We tell them, ‘This is what rabies looks like in dogs. So if you see it, don’t touch that dog.’”

She added that from the time an unvaccinated dog shows the first signs of rabies — such as dripping saliva and fits of rage followed by lethargy — a mere 10 days elapse until the animal dies.

The goal of the mission is to vaccinate 85,000 dogs.

But just as important is creating “herd immunity” through mass vaccination in Mumbai.

“If we can vaccinate 70 percent of the animal population, we can essentially stop the spread of the disease,” Griffith says hopefully.

Back in Las Vegas on a rainy February morning, the Decatur Boulevard branch of the Spay &Neuter Center was humming with activity.

Griffith worked in a spotless, well-lit operating room. Animal “patients” were being comforted by staff members while waiting in the lobby.

The calmest creature in the clinic, a brown-and-black tabby cat named Theodore, watched impassively from his elevated perch.

Griffith took a short break and, commenting on one of the morning’s many successful surgeries, offered a word of hope.

“I saved a life today,” she said with a smile, pointing toward the operating room.

Then she pulled up her mask, straightened her surgical gown and got back to work.

Contact Peter S. Levitt at plevitt@reviewjournal.com.

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