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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | October 2007 

Giving Rabies Vaccine is Sure Way to Protect Pets
email this pageprint this pageemail usDenise Flaim - Newsday
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Rabies has been eradicated.

No, wait just a second. It's poised for an outbreak.

News reports in recent months have offered conflicting information about this deadly disease, the poster child of which is the foaming-at-the-mouth, deranged, marauding stray dog.

Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the dog rabies virus had for all intents and purposes been eradicated in this country through vaccinations.

Headlines to the contrary, that didn't mean that rabies - an essentially untreatable disease, with only one documented human survivor in this country - has disappeared for good. It means only that the strain of the disease specific to dogs is no longer active in the canine population, having been last noted here in 2004.

But while canine rabies is kaput, the disease still circulates among bats, raccoons and foxes. And because rabies is zoonotic - that is, it can be transmitted across species - humans can contract rabies from these wild critters, as can dogs and cats.

We live, said Charles Rupprecht, chief of the CDC's rabies section, in a "sea of rabies." The good news, he continued, is that canine rabies - which is the most common strain responsible for disease transmission between dogs themselves and which poses the greatest threat to humans, because of our close-knit relationship with the fuzzy little guys - is now no longer a threat.

Or is it?

Last week, USA Today reported that the CDC is drafting new rules for importing dogs from abroad, rules that might be in place as soon as next year. The reason? Concern that the foreign dogs might carry diseases such as rabies, which is still common in Latin America, as well as parts of Africa and Asia.

This has left the realm of the theoretical. In March, a dog from India was flown to its new owner in Alaska - flying through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in the process - and was later pronounced rabid, according to the CDC.

The influx of Mexican-bred dogs across the Southern California border is also cause for worry. In 2004, Los Angeles noted its first case of dog rabies in three decades after a Mexican import was diagnosed with the disease. (Earlier that year, the same scenario had occurred in Massachusetts, with a dog from Puerto Rico.) The proliferation of "puppy peddlers" accounts for about 10,000 puppies brought into San Diego County annually, according to one estimate. Shelters in communities where effective spay and neuter campaigns have all but dried up the stray-puppy supply are also bringing in young dogs from abroad to meet demand.

Fear of igniting a pandemic from south of the border isn't just limited to rabies: Eight years ago or so, multiple cases of canine hepatitis, a disease that, like rabies, is all but extinct in the U.S. dog population, cropped up in a San Diego shelter among dogs that had originated in Mexico.

Even in the absence of threats from without, Americans should continue to vaccinate dogs for rabies, reminds Jean Dodds of Santa Monica, Calif., a veterinary immunologist, vocal critic of overvaccination and co-founder of the Rabies Challenge Fund.

The purpose of the fund is to raise money for clinical trials to prove that the rabies vaccine imparts immunity for as long as five to seven years - not the three years currently acknowledged by the USDA.

But that's a far cry from saying vaccination is no longer necessary, Dodds stresses.

"The whole point is not to stop giving the rabies vaccine, but not to give it more than it is needed" because of the risk of adverse reactions, she says. In fact, the reason canine rabies is under control in this country is precisely because of "herd immunity" - so many animals are properly vaccinated that when an infected animal is introduced, the disease cannot get a foothold.

As a result, owners whose animals are properly vaccinated can rest easy at the prospect of rogue Rovers shedding life-threatening microbes in their pooches' vicinity. "What it should flush out is those people who decide to break the law and can't be bothered to have their animals vaccinated," Dodds says. "The animals at risk will be those who are not vaccinated."

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