A photograph of a young girl’s gravesite, 8,000 miles away in Kenya, sparked an idea in Brian Darrow’s mind that would change his life.
The simple, yet striking photo eventually led the Anamosa veterinarian, along with other native Iowans, to rural villages in Kenya where they potentially saved lives by administering rabies vaccines to thousands of animals.
“There’s no reason that two guys from Anamosa should have made a rabies preventative program in Kenya…but it happened,” Darrow said.
Darrow came across the photo at an Iowa State University track team reunion four years ago when former coach Bill Bergan showed Darrow photos from his trip to Kenya to visit former ISU track team members.
He said he stopped Bergan and asked him to explain the gravesite photo. Then he learned Sharon’s story.
Sharon was the 8-year-old daughter of Barnaba Korir, a Kenyan who ran for Bergan’s ISU track team.
The day after Christmas in 2003, Sharon was harvesting guavas outside with her cousins when a loose dog began chasing the children. The dog bit Sharon on her upper back, so her parents cleaned the wound and immediately took her to the nearest hospital. There, she received a rabies vaccine that Bergan said they now suspect was expired.
Sharon returned to school and life as normal, but on January 12, 2004, she was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with active rabies. She died the next day.
Returning to Anamosa, Darrow switched his vaccination purchases to a drug company that sends vaccines to Africa for every vaccine he buys. Other than that small change, Darrow said he didn’t think much more about Sharon’s story until a public relations firm called him, wanting to know more about his interest in Africa. Darrow said he realized he needed to know more.
He called Barnaba, Sharon’s father, and asked, “Is it OK if I tell your story?” Darrow said Barnaba responded, “If my story will help, we want it told.” Barnaba told Darrow the details and sent him pictures of his little girl.
“My heart was torn,” Darrow said.
Darrow then began researching the issue of rabies in Africa and organizing a program with the help of Barnaba and other Kenyans’ help, the Kenyan government, Non-Governmental Organizations in Kenya, and friends in the United States.
Ron Tapper, an Anamosa native, ISU alumnus, and current veterinarian in Florida, agreed to help. ISU alumnus John Lichty, originally of Waterloo, now works in canine reproduction at a biotech company in Wisconsin. The three all knew Kenyans from running track at ISU, and eagerly joined the project.
“We brought everyone together as a team and created a program to go out and do mass vaccinations,” Darrow said.
Sharon’s Project, or Sharon Live On, was born.
Darrow quickly learned how large a threat rabies poses to humans in Africa.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 95 percent of worldwide human rabies deaths occur in Africa and Asia. Also, dogs are the most frequent transmitters to humans. Darrow said if they could vaccinate about 75 percent of dogs in one area, it would reduce human contraction by 90 percent.
“It didn’t sound like rocket science to me,” Darrow said.
The drug company Merck donated 30,000 doses of the vaccine, and their original goal was to vaccinate 8,000 dogs, 1,000 cats, and around 300 donkeys.
When they finally traveled to Kenya in January, they vaccinated 14,991 dogs, 1,600 cats, and more than 300 donkeys.
“The response was overwhelming,” Darrow said, describing a surprise five-hour welcoming ceremony for the group of Iowans including parades, speeches, and a band. “…We were huge celebrities.”
One of the largest differences between Kenyan and American pets is the amount of money owners invest, said Lichty.
“A lot of people over there make $1 a day, so they’re living off $30 a month,” Darrow said. “So they don’t spend money on their dogs.”
At the welcome ceremony, a group of children recited a short speech, which Darrow said translated to, “We love our dogs, but we know they can be dangerous for us and we’re so honored that you’ve come to help us and keep us safe.”
After the ceremony and a whirlwind of TV and media appearances to promote their cause, Darrow said the group focused their vaccinations in the central district of Nandi County.
The night before they would visit a village, a government car would announce their visit over loudspeakers mounted on their car. At each location Darrow said hundreds of owners and their animals would line up all afternoon for vaccinations.
Darrow said he and the others shared many memorable moments with native Kenyans who invited them in for tea or to tour a local schoolhouse. However, one moment in particular stood out to Darrow.
As he sat in the passenger’s seat of their car and joked around with some of the Kenyan workers, he said he felt a presence over his shoulder. He turned to look out the window, and was surprised by a crowd of nearly 50 schoolchildren, laughing and smiling. He snapped a photo.
“The picture was like a gift,” he said. “I couldn’t have staged it. It’s almost like Sharon was looking at us through those eyes.”
Following their first vaccination trip in January, and the encouraging support of local politicians and government leaders, they hope rabies prevention will eventually spread across the entire country.
In the meantime, Darrow said they have three main goals.
One, they will continue to support and empower expanding rabies prevention programs through Sharon’s Project. Two, they want to break ground for a new medical clinic called Sharon’s Hospital near where she had lived next year. Finally, they need to raise $5,000 to install running water at a medical clinic in Kericho, where some of their old ISU track friends live.
Although Lichty said he thinks achieving these goals will be a slow process of fundraising and planning, he said it can be done.
“I’d like to see Sharon’s memory be kind of a thing that’s bigger than just Sharon Live On,” he said. “When they hear the name, people should think of clinics and stuff all around Kenya. It becomes something bigger than just this one little event.”
Tapper said a large part of their process going forward should include sharing life-saving information with Kenyans.
“Part of our program was to bring education to the people,” he said. “Sharon who got bit, we’re not convinced that she got proper medical treatment. From the top all the way down they’re just missing that link.”
Anyone is welcome to donate to the cause. Bergan, who will join their next trip to Kenya, said he encourages ISU alumni and athletes to contribute donations, as well.
“The program has really helped [Sharon's] family,” he said. “[She] didn’t die in vain, and they feel that through her death many, many other kids are going to maybe be saved.”
Africa, Anamosa, barnaba korir, bill bergan, brian darrow, john lichty, Kenya, kericho, nandi county, rabies, ron tapper, sharon korir, sharon live on, sharon's project, Waterloo, Wisconsin