After a rabid dog made it into the United States from Egypt, rabies experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are trying to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
The rabid dog was transported into the country in May by an animal rescue organization. It was later discovered the dog’s rabies vaccination certificate was a fake, CDC officials said Thursday.
It’s the fourth time — that officials know of — in the last 11 years that a rabid dog has been imported to the United States.
Ten people who had substantial contact with the animal were advised to get post-exposure rabies treatment and eight more involved in its importation opted to get vaccinated as a precaution, CDC and state health department officials wrote in a report on the incident published in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a journal operated by the CDC.
‘There’s no shortage of adoptable dogs in the US’
The authors said rescue operations that import strays for adoption in the United States might want to rethink their approach to safeguarding the animals’ wellbeing.
“Globally, animal welfare stakeholders should consider focusing their efforts on supporting local organizations that provide adoptive homes, along with health care services, for street animals in their own countries,” they wrote.
Scientists in the CDC’s rabies program said the organization isn’t trying to put a stop to such operations or discourage people from adopting companion animals in need of a home. But people who want to adopt an animal could look closer to home, they suggested.
“The strong point we’re trying to make here is that there are plenty of adoptable animals here in the United States. About five million animals a year enter a shelter and about half of those will be … put down,” said Ryan Wallace, a veterinary epidemiologist with the CDC. “So there’s no shortage of adoptable animals here in the United States.”
Human rabies cases are rare
Globally, nearly 60,000 people a year die from rabies, a virus that attacks the central nervous system. People exposed to the virus will survive, if they are given treatment quickly. But once symptoms start to manifest, the disease is almost invariably fatal. The incubation period — the time from exposure to onset of illness — is typically between three weeks and three months, though it can stretch much longer. Some people only develop rabies a number of years after exposure.
In developed countries, human rabies cases are rare. The United States reports one to three cases a year, on average. But rabies remains a public health concern, both because of the fatality rate of cases and the fact that countries like the United States work hard to ensure that the ground gained against the once more-common disease isn’t lost.
Before rabies vaccines were developed and mandated for dogs in the United States, there were about 100 rabies deaths a year.
The United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on rabies control programs in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to rid itself of canine rabies, Wallace said. The last case of canine rabies — the strain that circulates among dogs — was recorded in 2004. (Other strains of rabies that infect bats, raccoons, skunks, and mongooses are still found in the United States and its protectorates.)
Red flags on paperwork
“We definitely do not want that canine rabies virus coming back into the United States and being re-established,” Wallace said. “It is the most dangerous [rabies] virus to people. Not that it’s any different in terms of how it impacts us but because it affects dogs, the animals that live in our houses and sometimes sleep in our beds.”
Dr. Nicky Cohen said the CDC issued guidelines last year to spell out what is needed, from a rabies control standpoint, to import companion animals to the United States. Chief among them: an authentic rabies vaccination certificate. It also pointed out some red flags to look for on rabies vaccination certificates to spot fakes — things like multiple dogs in a shipment having identical certificates or evidence that a dog’s name has been whited out.
“It’s pretty basic,” Cohen admitted. “There have been four incidences where rabid dogs have been imported. But we do know that more dogs than just these four have been imported with falsified records. This was issued in response to the recognition of imported dogs with falsified vaccination records.”
The dog from Egypt was part of a shipment of eight dogs and 27 cats. It was the only animal in the shipment that was infected.
The animals arrived in New York from Cairo, but were then sent on to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia — which is where the rabid dog wound up. All had to be traced and checked.
Cohen and Wallace said the CDC doesn’t know how many international animal rescue groups are importing animals to the United States, or how many animals a year come in this way. Importations tend to spike when a natural disaster garners a lot of media attention, Cohen noted, such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.