Passports for pets - nothing mad about that: Britain's unrelenting attitude towards rabies control is way behind the times, argues Christopher Jackson

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN the German MEP Dieter Rogalla led his red setter, 'Passat', up the gangplank to the Channel ferry in Calais on New Year's Eve he was turned away. Dr Rogalla was not deterred. Armed with copies of the British regulations, he has lodged a complaint with the Commission of the European Communities that the United Kingdom infringes Article 8a of the Treaty of Rome.

Was the MEP foolishly risking the chance of introducing rabies to Britain? Or was he simply exposing a Britain behind the times, unwilling to change for no good reason? After years of terrifying propaganda, most people in Britain believe the risk to them from dog- or cat-borne rabies is extremely high, yet scientific evidence submitted by experts to the European Parliament's Intergroup on Frontier Control, which I chair, confirms that as far as the EC is concerned, this is not the case.

This is because there are different types of rabies, of which the most common are European fox rabies and dog or 'street' rabies (prevalent in Latin America, Africa and Asia).

Unlike other rabies, our 'European' rabies is maintained only by the fox population. While a bite from a rabid fox can pass the disease to dogs, humans, cows, horses or other animals, the European rabies virus will propagate (or 'cycle') only by transmission from fox to fox.

Years of scientific observation clearly show that dogs or cats infected with European rabies will not spark off a nationwide epidemic. Indeed, it is extremely rare for the European fox rabies virus to be passed on by animals other than the fox. The situation is very different in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where the street rabies virus will cycle in dogs and other animals and is regularly passed by them.

What, then, about the UK's quarantine laws, drawn up in the days when our main contacts were with countries infected with street rabies? First, they make no allowance for the fact that in the case of the European virus animals other than foxes will not start a chain of infection, nor for recent scientific advances. And, second, there now exists an anti-rabies oral vaccine for foxes. Spread in capsule form by helicopter as part of a brilliantly successful EC programme, it has proved effective and safe in the process of eradicating fox rabies.

Despite the clear success of the eradication programme, there have been reports that rabies was advancing towards Calais. This is because France did not at first follow the European Commission plan for eradication. Instead, it simply vaccinated along an east-west axis south of Paris, leaving the disease in the north free to 'leak' back into neighbouring countries and to continue its 'advance' towards Britain. Now the commission plan is being followed properly, total eradication from France and other EC countries is in sight. The incidence of rabies in France last month was 80 per cent less than one year ago, and all infected areas are being treated.

The new vaccine has had equal success elsewhere. In rabies-free Finland, a rabid animal walked over the ice from Russia and started a chain of infection. Use of the EC eradication system was the key to breaking the chain and eliminating the outbreak, with no mass destruction of wildlife. Rabies viruses are sufficiently similar for the same vaccine to combat them all.

By World Health Organisation standards, seven out of 12 EC countries are not rabies-infected: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Italy was included, but two cases were found in the north recently as rabies re-entered from Austria. Looking at the trends, I maintain the belief I expressed two years ago, that rabies will have been eradicated from the EC by 1995, or soon after, subject to the disease being held at bay to the east by a continuously vaccinated cordon sanitaire, up to 100km wide, in countries bordering the EC.

To protect the Community from street rabies from Asia, America or Africa, there are two options. British quarantine laws or something like them could be applied at all EC external borders for imports of animals at risk. Alternatively, as in France today, animals could be allowed in with evidence of vaccination, plus evidence of adequate antibodies.

What risks would we run if Britain were to adopt the 'pet passport' practice followed on the Continent? Our pet animals, having been identified, vaccinated and tested for adequate rabies antibodies, could be issued with a veterinary certificate, rather as horses are now, to enable them to move freely to and from the Continent and travel with their owners on holiday. Such a certificate is already widely used in other European countries and there have been no cases of infection.

Those who claim this would be an unjustified risk should look at the epidemiological evidence. Unrestricted movement of vaccinated animals already exists between numerous European countries without rabies spreading. Rabies-free Denmark (which used to have laws like those in Britain) allows free movement of vaccinated pets with rabies-infected Germany: no case of rabies has resulted. Rabies-free Corsica has unrestricted movement with rabies-infected northern France: again, no case of rabies has arisen. Within France itself, rabies spread only in the fox population and did not leap from the north, where the disease exists and dogs are vaccinated, to the south, where dogs are not generally vaccinated, despite totally free movement. This is the most compelling evidence of all.

Dr Rogalla and Passat are on the right lines: allowing in identified pets with a 'pet passport' would not reduce our protection. Indeed, Britain already allows movement to and from the Continent of unvaccinated horses - and horses are at least as susceptible to rabies as dogs.

Steps by Britain to introduce the pet passport would, I believe, legitimately stave off Dr Rogalla's impending challenge in the European Court. For the blind, as for growing numbers of British families who go to live or work on the Continent, or who wish to take their pets on holiday within the EC, this would be welcome news. And the picture of the rather sad dog or cat held in quarantine for six long months would be banished for ever.

The writer is MEP for Kent East.

(Photograph omitted)

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