Two senior government scientists added their weight to the pressure on Britain to relax its strict anti-rabies regulations today.
The chief veterinary officer, Dr Debby Reynolds, and the Government's chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir David King, both said that the current six-month wait demanded by British authorities after pets are vaccinated against rabies is longer than necessary.
The "six-month rule", which also underpins Britain's hundred-year-old quarantine laws, is considered over-zealous by many scientists because rabies symptoms are usually evident within three months. Across most of the EU, pets are allowed to travel within 21 days of vaccination against the disease.
IӒve reviewed all the available evidence and I agree that the current restrictions are too precautionary," said Sir David. There's a case to consider bringing our rules more in line with other European Union countries.Ӕ
Dr Reynolds concurred, telling the BBC that Britain's regulations, which are credited with keeping the UK free of rabies since its eradication in 1922, "actually may be more than is necessary to achieve the level of protection that we want".
The scientists spoke as Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Health Minister, is considering the results of a review of Britain's anti-rabies policy by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The consultation, which was completed in February, was ordered to investigate whether Britain should harmonise its animal movement rules with the rest of Europe.
Britain amended its rabies laws in 2000, introducing the Pet Travel Scheme (Pets) which allowed animals to move between co-operating European countries without the need for quarantine. In 2004, the Pets regime was extended across the EU and since then, the European Commission has wanted Britain to come into line with the rest of the bloc.
However, along with Sweden and Malta, also traditionally rabies-free, Britain was allowed to keep its national rules pending a review early this year.
Vets have warned the Government not to give up too many of the regulations which help restrict the arrival of animal-borne diseases in the UK. They are adamant that an independent blood test verifying that an animal has been safely vaccinated against rabies remains in place.
Although such blood tests are required in France, they are not elsewhere in the EU, where there are fears that the prevalence of rabies among pets and wildlife in accession states in eastern and central Europe could increase the likelihood of the disease spreading across the continent.
According to the World Health Organisation, Croatia reported 4,006 cases of rabies in animals other than bats, the most common carriers, between 2000 and 2006. Lithuania and Poland both reported more than 7,000 cases in the same period. Germany, meanwhile, suffered 366 cases, of which five were human infections.
During the Defra review, health and veterinary chiefs also urged the Government to keep in place Britain's exceptional rules for the treatment of dogs and cats for ticks and tapeworm before they enter the UK. At present, all pets must be must be dewormed and treated for ticks not less than 24 hours and no more than 48 hours before returning to Britain in an attempt to keep echinococcosis, a fatal tapeworm, out of the country.