Why aren't Germans all dead from rabies?

Mad dogs scare Englishmen, but Germany handles rabies without frothing at the mouth. Imre Karacs encountered a bad bat in Bonn - and lived
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The Independent Online
LOOK what the cat brought in one sunny afternoon. The poor creature was still alive, dragging its broken limbs on the carpet and emitting piercing sounds every time its tormentor gave a bored prod with its paws.

The cat was rather nonplussed, and so were we. Living at the edge of Bonn's forests, we had become accustomed to an exotic range of feline prey, but never had we seen a mouse with wings. We put our uninvited guest into a shoe-box, fed it drops of milk through a straw, and secretly hoped that it would die soon. The children had already expressed a desire to take their new pet into school.

The next day our bat seemed chirpy, so we called the vet. There was no time to be wasted, she said. Bats were protected, but more importantly, they carried horrible diseases and since this one had allowed itself to be captured by an earth-bound predator, there was a good chance that it was ill. Casually, she mentioned that the bats in our neighbourhood were infected with rabies. This was not a good moment to describe to her how I sucked milk into the straw from a glass and blew it into the bat's mouth. There is, as every Briton knows, no cure for rabies, only a one-month sentence after which comes insanity and violent death.

We rushed to the vet's surgery and handed over the shoe-box with trembling hands. Only later, when we retold the story to horrified German friends, did we discover our foolishness. Rabies is something Germans have learnt to live with: you do not touch suspect animals, and you certainly do not feed them, but if you do come into contact with one, your first trip should be to the doctor. We failed on all counts.

The incident was an unwelcome reminder of our vulnerability to a disease that Britain's rigorous controls have banished beyond the white cliffs of Dover. Here, we are unprotected. As official British propaganda suggests, Germany is crawling with rabies.

Since the fall of communism, mad dogs have been wandering across the previously mined no man's land between eastern and western Europe, carrying their virus into the population centres along the Rhine. Shortly after German unification, the numbers of detected cases soared, and are only now stabilising again at Cold War levels. Nevertheless, even in the first quarter of this year 2,831 rabid animals - foxes, wolves, badgers, wild cats and martens - were discovered in Europe. .

The terrifying disease lurks in every field and meadow. In the forest that begins at our back garden, there are large signs along footpaths warning of rabid foxes. Schoolchildren are taught to read the signals: a tame fox is likely to spell death, a dog bite warrants an immediate jab. As a precaution, pets are inoculated in regions affected by rabies.

Living in the shadow of rabies is akin to the experience of the early 1980s, when local authorities bombarded their citizens with leaflets describing survival techniques in the aftermath of a nuclear war. There is still no cure, and the vaccine only works if administered before the disease takes hold. At least the jab has got better over the years - the large needle punched through the stomach has given way to a small injection in the arms, no more painful than a tetanus vaccination.

It is not a pleasant prospect to contemplate as one embarks on a Sunday stroll in the woods. Yet Germans manage to cope with the menace Britain finds unable to contemplate. There is no compulsory quarantine for pets arriving in Germany, no six-month wait for Rover to be reunited with his master. This uncharacteristic laxity is justified in terms that would surprise Britain's guardians of public health: the Germans argue that the threat of rabies to humans is insignificant.

So insignificant, in fact, that the Ministry of Health runs no statistics on the incidence of rabies - just as it has no figures on the number who have died of bubonic plague in recent years.

Far from being haunted by thoughts of rabies, doctors failed to diagnose it when confronted by a case earlier this year. A 49-year- old man from Dusseldorf had been bitten by a dog while on holiday in Sri Lanka. He succumbed to rabies a few weeks after his return, by which time it was too late, though his chances of recovery were not enhanced by a decision to dispatch him to the nearest psychiatric ward. He was eventually transferred to a more suitable clinic, where he died five weeks after his encounter. Only after the autopsy did doctors discover the true cause, whereupon they hurriedly vaccinated 52 people who had been in contact with the patient. There was a previous case six years ago - also imported. The last time anybody caught rabies in Germany was in 1974.

Yet Britain perseveres against the sickness of the Middle Ages with a system that is, appropriately, medieval. The lesson from Europe is that pets arriving from the Continent pose less danger to health than a British fillet steak, and locking up returning holidaymakers might be more effective than putting animals in quarantine. The battle, in any case, is forlorn. As Britain recently discovered, rabid bats can fly.