SHANGHAI -- China slaughtered 50,000 dogs in a government-ordered crackdown after three people died of rabies, sparking unusually pointed criticism in state media yesterday and an outcry from animal rights activists.
Health experts said the brutal policy pointed to weaknesses in the healthcare infrastructure in China, where only 3 percent of dogs are vaccinated against rabies and more than 2,000 people die of the disease each year.
The five-day slaughter in Mouding county in Yunnan province in southwestern China ended Sunday and spared only military guard dogs and police canine units, state media reported.
Dogs being walked were seized from their owners and beaten to death on the spot, the Shanghai Daily newspaper reported. Led by the county police chief, killing teams entered villages at night creating noise to get dogs barking, then beat the animals to death, the reports said.
Owners were offered 63 cents per animal to kill their own dogs before the teams were sent in, they said.
The killings were widely discussed on the Internet, with both legal scholars and animal rights activists criticizing them as crude and cold-blooded. The World Health Organization said more emphasis needed to be placed on rabies prevention.
The official newspaper Legal Daily blasted the killings as an ``extraordinarily crude, cold-blooded and lazy way for the government to deal with epidemic disease."
In an editorial, the official Xinhua News Agency said the killings wouldn't have been necessary if the local government had been more attentive "
``If they'd discovered this earlier, they could have vaccinated the dogs and . . . controlled the outbreak," the editorial said.
The killings prompted calls for a boycott of Chinese products from the activist group People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Mouding County officials defended the slaughter in a region where about 360 of the 200,000 residents suffered dog bites this year, with three people reportedly dying of rabies, including a 4-year-old girl.
``With the aim to keep this horrible disease from people, we decided to kill the dogs," Li Haibo, a spokesman for the county government, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Calls to county government offices were not answered yesterday . Located in mountains about 1,240 miles southwest of Shanghai, Mouding is famed for its Buddhist shrines.
About 70 percent of rural households have dogs, according to the Chinese Center of Disease Control and Prevention, and increased rates of dog ownership have been tied to a surge in the number of rabies cases in recent years. It reported 2,651 deaths from the disease in 2004, the last year for which data was available.
Access to rabies treatment is also highly limited, especially in the countryside, said Dr. Francette Dusan, a World Health Organization expert.
Effective rabies control requires coordinated efforts between human health, animal health, and municipal agencies and authorities, Dusan said.
``This has not been pursued adequately to date in China, with most control efforts consisting of purely reactive dog culls," she said.