Examining the case against quarantine

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"It is inevitable that this inquiry will ... throw a spotlight on the way this country prevents rabies from reaching these shores," London coroner Dr William Dolman said last week, writes Susan Emmett.

He was opening an inquest into the rabies death of Olawuale Shutti. The 19-year-old who came to Britain from Nigeria last month had said he was bitten by a dog two years earlier but suffered no ill effect.

At the same time, nearly 700 British vets were calling for an end to the six months' quarantine for animals coming into this country. They support a group who broke away from the British Veterinary Association to issue their own proposals on anti-rabies measures last week.

The vets are recommending a system of vaccinations, blood tests and microchip identification similar to those in Sweden. "We believe vaccination and identification is a much safer method of protecting the country than quarantine," says Lord Soulsby, Emeritus Professor of animal pathology at Cambridge. "With quarantine, people are encouraged to smuggle pets into the country."

Since 1946 nearly 200,000 animals have been through quarantine, at a cost of pounds 2,000 each to their owners, but only 15 developed rabies. In the last 25 years there have been only two presumed cases of rabies in quarantine. The pressure group Passport for Animals notes that even six months' confinement does not rule out rabies altogether. Since 1946 four animals have developed the disease after quarantine.

The breakaway vets argue that vaccination is 100 per cent effective in dogs. But the BVA is not satisfied the proposals are foolproof: "Quarantine has served us well. Anything that replaces it must give us the same degree of safety."