THE BLOG

EU Pet Passport Is Not an Open Door to Rabies

27/02/2014 12:04 GMT | Updated 28/04/2014 10:59 BST

There is a coloured etching currently in the collection of the British Museum by the artist Thomas Lord Busby, depicting a dog stalking the streets of an English town. The picture, if one were to believe certain sections of the press, is not so much a social satire from the 1840s as a chilling prediction of 21st century Britain.

The picture is called Mad Dog and features a stray dog, tongue hanging out; running amok amid panicked townsfolk with public notices warning of hydrophobia. At the time, it tapped into popular fears that rabies could become the new Black Death, a horrendous and indiscriminating killer.

Such fears were not unfounded and are indeed not out of place in many parts of the globe today. Rabies is still the world's most fatal disease, offering virtually zero hope of survival to those unlucky enough to contract it. Worldwide, it kills 55,000 people each year. The majority of these victims are children and all die unimaginably painful deaths.

The UK has demonstrated an exemplary record in controlling the disease since the days of Busby. Along with large parts of Western Europe, Britain has developed, what we in the business of rabies control would deem, the gold standard in controlling the disease. This has been achieved through adopting comprehensive vaccination programmes for animals, improved surveillance and regulating importation of animals, and a well developed healthcare infrastructure for delivering post-exposure prophylaxis for those that have received bites and lastly widespread education and vigilance.

It is this last notion of vigilance that is now being called into question in the media. Veterinarians and trading standards officers are now warning of the renewed risk the country faces since the introduction of the EU's Pet Passport Scheme in 2012. This freedom of movement, with its accompanying relaxation of quarantine requirements, they say, means the risk of re-introduction of rabies is now greater than ever.

This may well be. The UK, along with the rest of Europe, is certainly more at risk from unscrupulous dog traders that avoid or fake the documentation that is necessary to comply with the new rules. That said, neither should we look back to the days of 6-month quarantine as a golden era, either in terms of animal welfare or personal freedom.

There has to be a balance, and with constant and effective surveillance - at borders but also in-country, rabies need not be a threat to the UK. My organization is striving to introduce these levels of control in other countries in the world where rabies remains a big killer. We have found that in countries like the Philippines, where the majority of victims are children, relatively simple measures such as introducing basic rabies awareness into the school curriculum can have a remarkable life-saving impact, all for a minimal investment.

Much of the world can learn from the successes of Europe, just as Europe must adapt to a shrinking, more open world where physical borders are becoming less of a barrier to animals, much as they are to humans, goods and money. The EU Pet Passport Scheme should be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate effective rabies prevention in a more open, globalized age; it is certainly a model that has enabled pet owners to travel with their pets while maintaining the best possible animal welfare.

The author is Chief Executive Officer at the Global Alliance for Rabies Control