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National Health Scare

How rabies returned to Spain: first case since 1975 caused by passport check failure

Infected dog bites five people after its owners entered the country illegally Health Ministry says chances of an outbreak remain minimal

Esther Sánchez

On June 1 Spain ceased to be a country free of rabies. A dog carrying the disease went on a rampage in Toledo, biting five people, including a two-year-old who spent several days in intensive care with facial injuries.

The first instance of rabies since 1975 caused the authorities to declare a level 1 (the lowest) alert in the area for six months and to order the compulsory vaccination of every dog, cat and ferret in a 20-kilometer radius. The dog in question was cornered by police and put down.

How did a rabid dog find itself untended in a Toledo street in 2013? The animal, which had traveled to the province from its home in Catalonia with its owners, had returned to the country on April 12 after four months in Morocco. EU legislation states that animals leaving Europe must be vaccinated and undergo a serological test 30 days later to ensure the presence of antibodies in the blood. This should be done three months before going abroad. This procedure was not carried out and the dog managed to get back into Spain nonetheless. His owner has been charged with criminal negligence resulting in injury.

The rule is there for a reason . . . an epidemiologic outbreak is no small matter"

Initial investigations into the case suggest the couple "did everything possible to enter Spain illegally," according to the Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry. On April 5 they attempted to get off the ferry at Algeciras with three dogs but were refused entry because the animal's pet passport was incomplete. A week later they again arrived at Algeciras but this time on a boat from the Spanish exclave of Ceuta. On this occasion, the ministry report reads, "Section 5 was not checked" - the part of the documentation that certifies a serological test has been carried out.

"What happened is a good example that the rule is there for a reason because an epidemiologic outbreak is no small matter, especially when there are people injured," says Juan Emilio Echevarría of the National Microbiology Center (CNB). He notes that the last outbreak in Spain lasted from 1975 to 1978 and infected 126 animals. One person died.

The Health Ministry has said that the chances of an outbreak remain minimal and that it is almost impossible for a human to contract rabies with modern medical capabilities. However, alarm bells rang at the CNB when it confirmed the North African strain on June 5. A contingency plan was put in place for the infection of domestic animals, within a 20-kilometer radius of Toledo and in the areas of Catalonia the animal was known to have passed through.

"As scientists we keep a constant watch and if anything occurs we can resolve the problem, but in the preventive aspect we depend 90 percent on the responsibility of pet owners," says Echevarría, who adds that because of Ceuta and Melilla's proximity to Morocco there are reported cases in the exclaves every year. France has also seen rabies return in isolated incidents, always originating from animals illegally introduced from Morocco overland via Spain. "It's obvious that the risk of imported cases is there, as we have just seen," he warns.

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