DVM Grad Tackles Rabies at the Source in Malawi

At 10 minutes to eight in the morning, John Clark, DVM SGU ’12, and his crew pulled up to the village of Embangweni, located about 250 kilometers north of Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, where Dr. Clark grew up. In the weeks prior, the local radio station had advertised why Dr. Clark’s charitable organization, the Community Health Coalition, had come—to administer free rabies vaccines for area animals.

Dr. Clark discovered a line of people and animals several hundred deep. They encountered the same response days later at their second clinic in Mufwe, Zambia—citizen after citizen awaiting important health care for their pets.

“Everybody was there waiting even before we arrived,” he said of the crowds. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Across the two communities, Dr. Clark, his wife Rachel, and veterinary assistants administered more than 542 rabies vaccines to area animals, helping to address a dire public health problem that spreads across the country and the continent.

Dr. Clark, who operates the Community Veterinary Clinic in Vero Beach, Florida, hopes that it is his first step of many in helping to eradicate rabies in Malawi. His desire is in line with how he arrived at St. George’s University—courtesy of a Commonwealth Jubilee Scholarship, which are awarded to Commonwealth citizens who are committed to developing health care in their home country.

“It feels good to have spent the two days in Malawi and Zambia because it was an opportunity for us to give back to the community,” said Dr. Clark.

The 2012 SGU graduate modeled the mission after a vaccination program created by Dr. Guy Palmer, Founding Director of the Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health at Washington State University. The program aimed to create a rabies-free zone in Kenya and Tanzania that would encourage other regions to focus their attention on the disease as well.

Dr. Clark consulted with Dr. Palmer—who was also a keynote speaker at St. George’s University’s One Health One Medicine Symposium in October—and began to put together his own plan to vaccinate dogs in remote locations in Malawi and Zambia. While the vaccination mission was a step in the right direction, he even admitted it’s a small one. According to the WHO, it is necessary to vaccinate 70 percent of the dog population in an area to control rabies, which would require approximately 80,000 vaccines in northern Malawi alone per Dr. Clark.

However, plans are moving forward on a global scale. At a conference earlier this year in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) established End Rabies Now, a framework strategy to eliminate the disease worldwide by 2030. The alliance hopes to attack the issue by providing affordable human vaccines and antibodies, prompt treatment of infected individuals, and widespread dog vaccinations.

Much of the focus is on Africa and Asia, where rabies causes tens of thousands of deaths each year. Since his mission, Dr. Clark has gained 501(c)(3) status for his organization and began laying the groundwork for SGU students to complete clinical rotations in Malawi. He plans to return there to provide many more rabies vaccinations in 2018.

“People are coming from the outside and trying to make a difference,” Dr. Clark said. “We made a dent. We will try again next year and just keep trying and trying. We hope to get bigger each year.”