It’s a dog’s life for Sierra Leone vet

One of Sierra Leone’s few veterinarians wages an uphill battle against rabies on a shoestring budget.

The number of unowned dogs in Sierra Leone is estimated to be roughly 250,000 [Nina Devries/Al Jazeera]
The number of unowned dogs in Sierra Leone is estimated to be roughly 250,000 [Nina Devries/Al Jazeera]

They are everywhere you look: dodging traffic, roaming the beaches and scavenging in gutters for food. Many hop about on just three legs due to collisions with cars, and many more lie on the corners of roads, waiting for death to take them.

These are the street dogs of Sierra Leone. For the majority of the West African country’s population of six million people, life is a daily struggle. Most people live on less than two dollars a day, according to the World Bank, and for much of the population, the fate of street dogs is not a major concern. 

But for one veterinarian, Dr Gudush Jalloh, helping these vulnerable creatures is a priority.

“During my work as a vet I’ve seen many stray dogs which are sick, full of mange, skin diseases, abused by children … these animals have no future and were suffering,” explained Jalloh.

Jalloh has been close to animals his whole life. He comes from the Fullah nomadic tribe, which traditionally rear cattle. He grew up around dogs, and eventually decided to study veterinary medicine in Russia on a scholarship.

Just before he returned to Sierra Leone, he learned that a stray dog had bitten his younger brother. He tried to make it home in time, but it was too late. His brother was only seven years old.

Rabies control

“My parents were advised to look for a rabies vaccine, but this was not available anywhere. Three months later he showed signs and symptoms of rabies and died in agony. This occupied my mind for months,” said Jalloh. “I then resolved that I should do all I can to contribute my knowledge and energy to fight against rabies. Rabies is a preventable disease. Through dog population control and vaccination there will be less stray dogs suffering in the street which also poses human health and environmental hazards. And I thought if this was done I would not have lost my brother.”

Dr Jalloh is one of only about four veterinarians in the country [Nina Devries/Al Jazeera]

Jalloh got in touch with animal welfare organisations such as World Animal Protection, formally known as the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

It was through their help that Jalloh opened the Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society, located in the capital, Freetown. Jalloh lives and works at the clinic, which takes in all types of canines – from puppies to old dogs dumped by owners who no longer want them.

Jalloh keeps several dogs at a time if he cannot find a home for them. It’s not unusual to have strange canines sniffing at ones feet while paying for a pet bill.

Electricity is sporadic in the country. Jalloh does have a generator, but it is not very powerful – making sterilisations difficult.

The World Animal Protection has donated a veterinary mobile clinic, which allows Jalloh to offer free vaccination, sterilisation, mange and worm treatment to dogs across the country. So far, Jalloh and his small team say they have performed up to 50,000 rabies vaccinations and 45,000 sterilisations of stray dogs in Sierra Leone.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 60,000 people die from rabies each year, with about 95 percent of those cases occurring in African and Asian countries.

There is little data on rabies in Sierra Leone. Dr Brima Kargbo, the chief medical officer at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, said only one case was reported this year, in Freetown, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been other cases. According to him, most cases are not reported.

Rabies is believed by many to be caused by demons, another reason why its victims may not receive medical attention. “Some people also confuse rabies with scabies – also known as mange – a skin disease caused by mites. Dogs are brutally killed because of this,” explained Jalloh.

Dr Katie Hampson is a research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine. She has been doing research on the global burden of rabies, including in Sierra Leone. According to her, more than 500 people die of rabies in Sierra Leone each year. And the problem has been growing worse in sub-Saharan Africa, she says.


Only about four veterinary clinics exist in the entire country. Jalloh is the only one who offers to spay, neuter and vaccinate dogs against rabies for free. It’s hard to say exactly how many dogs are in the county as there is no available data, but Jalloh estimates the number of unowned dogs to be roughly 250,000.

According to World Animal Protection, Freetown has one of the densest populations of dogs in Africa – partly due to an influx of refugees during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war. Many brought their dogs with them.

Many dogs were also abandoned, which led to further population increase, said Jalloh. 

The consequence of dog overpopulation is that there is likely to be an increase in the cases of human rabies and possible rabies in livestock animals.

- Dr Brima Kargbo, chief medical officer at Sierra Leone's Ministry of Health and Sanitation

Jalloh is now facing a new challenge because funding from World Animal Protection has waned. He has received other donations, but they are few and far between.

Now, the clinic may be forced to shut down.

Nick de Souza, World Animal Protection’s director of programmes in Africa, said the funding they were providing does not create a long-term solution, and that it’s important for the government to work more with the Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society to ensure long-term, sustainable prevention.

He also has concerns about what could happen if the clinic shuts down. “Dr Jalloh has been vaccinating dogs against rabies in Freetown for at least 15 years. So there is a level of immunity there but if these vaccines stop, that wanes, and if the clinic does shut down, that could lead to a possible rabies epidemic,” said de Souza.

Kargbo is also worried. “The consequence of dog overpopulation is that there is likely to be an increase in the cases of human rabies and possible rabies in livestock animals. Therefore its closure will negatively impact on the dog population and rabies control in the country as whole.”

Jalloh’s dedicated staff are starting to feel the pressure. Many receive a stipend of less than $200 per month, and some are now leaving for greener pastures.

Zainab Mansaray is one of Jalloh’s long-time staff members. She has nursed tiny pups with low chances for survival back to health, worked gruelling hours – and has no regrets.

“They are important to me. We are working hard to minimise stray dogs in the country, and we need support to help more dogs from getting rabies and other diseases that are transferred to humans,” said Mansaray.

International support

Jalloh is hoping the international community may take more notice. It may be slowly starting to happen.

Nora Livingstone is the founder and CEO of Animal Experience International. Her company sends volunteers around the world to work with animals in need, and she recently volunteered in Sierra Leone with the clinic.

What moved her the most was the story of a little dog called “Number Two”, named after the beach along River Number Two, where she was found.

Livingstone called the staff of Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society to rescue the dog after she heard it was wandering around on the popular beach. The dog’s eye was infected, and children were throwing rocks at her.

It took three visits to the beach, but they found her. “After she was rescued she was treated for severe infection and brought back to life,” said Livingstone. “When I arrived at the clinic on the first day she ran up to greet me, tail wagging and happy smile for everyone to see. Working with animals in countries like Sierra Leone means there are a lot of sad stories. When there is a happy one, it is always very special. This happy ending was only because of Dr Jalloh and his incredibly talented and persistent team.”

When Jalloh was asked why he does this kind of work, he responded: “I owe my vision to animals. It’s because I helped animals that I met people who also loved animals and who jointly helped to save my vision. I met most of them while helping [and] working for animals. I believe if I had not been with animals I would have not met these people and I would have not got the help needed with insurance when I was going blind. How thankful I am to all of them and the animals, which provided the linkage from the bottom of my heart.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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