But the danger does not come directly from the Channel Tunnel link with Europe, as doctors had initially feared. Their research suggests that the proliferation of the urban fox making the link to humans through cats and dogs is the likely route for infection.
Their report, The BMA Guide to Rabies, published yesterday, argues strongly against relaxing the six-month quarantine for dogs and cats and proposes a new set of Europe-wide standards.
In January the Agriculture Select Committee suggested a new system of "pet passports" - vaccination and certification for dogs and cats from the European Union and other "approved" countries - removing the need for them to be quarantined.
But the then Minister of Agriculture, William Waldegrave, turned down the recommen- dations, describing them as "premature".
Dr Fleur Fisher, head of ethics, science and information at the BMA, said yesterday: "Basically we agree with the philosophy of the select committee but to be any good there must be a series of other regulations in place first, if a change is to be safe."
The BMA says there must be international criteria for designating a country rabies-free; there must be better scientific information on which laboratories can base their tests for the antibody status of vaccinated animals; and there must be standard micro-chip systems for tagging animals.
Paul DeVile, president of the British Veterinary Association and a member of the BMA working party, described rabies as the most important disease communicated between animals and man. "As such we must view it very seriously indeed. We do think that until everything is ready there must be no change. We must stick to the system which has kept us rabies-free for decades.
"Some people say that the quarantine is cruel. But the animal welfare implications of quarantine are nothing compared to the animal welfare implications of rabies. There would be massive killing of wildlife in affected areas, muzzling of dogs, keeping cats housebound and the killing of strays." He said that in an epidemic there would be no horseracing, no dog shows, and no movement of animals without a licence.
"Rabies control in France costs pounds 20m a year and this is borne by the public purse," Mr DeVile said.
The BMA believes that if regulations were slackened rabid animals would get in and the disease would be easily spread by urban foxes. The report says: "Although only 14 per cent of the country's fox population, Britain's urban foxes have densities amongst the highest recorded anywhere in the world."
Mr DeVile said that baiting fox food with oral vaccine, as in France, would not succeed with British urban foxes. To be successful 85 per cent of the fox population needs to be treated. It is estimated that only 35 per cent of the urban fox population could be reached because of the abundance of food available for scavenging.
t The BMA Guide to Rabies; British Medical Association; price pounds 17.50.Reuse content