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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkVallarta Living | November 2007 

Though Rare in U.S. Dogs, the Threat of Rabies Remains
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 It means only that the strain of the disease specific to dogs is no longer active in the canine population, having been last noted here in 2004.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 - 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 dogs - is now no longer a threat.

Or is it?

In late October, 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 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 - 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 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 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.

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

Even in the absence of threats from without, Americans should continue to vaccinate dogs for rabies, says Jean Dodds of Santa Monica, Calif., a veterinary immunologist 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. In fact, canine rabies is under control in this country precisely because of "herd immunity" - so many animals are properly vaccinated that when an infected animal is introduced, the disease cannot get a foothold.

Owners whose animals are properly vaccinated can rest easy at the prospect of rogue Rovers shedding life-threatening microbes in their dogs' 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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