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Where next for PETS?

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AT this stage it is not clear what the outcome will be, but it looks increasingly likely that the uk's Pet Travel Scheme (pets) could change next year when European Union (eu) rules on the prevention of rabies are amended. At present, a derogation under eu law allows the uk, along with Ireland, Sweden and Malta, to apply stricter conditions on pet movements than other member states, allowing them to require a serological test and a waiting period after vaccination against rabies before a pet can enter their territory. However, this derogation is due to expire in July 2008, and the European Commission is currently reviewing the rules to determine whether it should be allowed to continue. As part of this process it asked the Animal Health and Welfare Panel of the European Food Safety Authority (efsa) to give a scientific opinion on the risk of rabies being introduced into the uk, Ireland, Sweden and Malta if serological testing were to be abandoned. The efsa has now published its opinion,* which will be used by the Commission to help develop proposals for harmonised rules.

The efsa's report considers a number of issues, such as the prevalence and epidemiology of rabies in Europe, the efficacy of vaccines and the time taken for animals to develop an effective immunological response. It also considers the rationale for serological testing, as well as the waiting times that might be applied to ensure that animals are not incubating rabies before being vaccinated.

A key conclusion of the report is that rabies vaccination, using an authorised vaccine administered according to the approved vaccination schedule, should remain the key requirement for the movement of pets between eu member states. Inactivated rabies vaccines, it says, are highly efficient, and rapidly produce protective immunity that prevents infection and subsequent transmission of the disease.

The report distinguishes between countries considered to have a ‘negligible’ incidence of rabies (less than one case per million pets per year) and those with a ‘non-negligible’ incidence (one or more cases per million pets per year). It says that, for movement between countries where the incidence is negligible, there is no absolute effect of any risk-mitigating measures, although vaccination with authorised rabies vaccines and animal identification should be considered a basic measure in relation to pet movement.

For pet movements involving countries where the risk is not negligible, it says that further risk reduction measures may be required, including serological testing or second vaccination. In the case of animals moving from countries with negligible incidence to countries with a non-negligible incidence, it suggests that the best way to prevent rabies infection is to assure adequate immunity after primary vaccination before movement, by serological testing or by a second injection. For such animals, it says, there is no rationale for including a waiting time beyond the time where protective immunity has been achieved, and it recommends that requirements should simply be based on identification and vaccination followed by serological testing or second injection. In the case of animals moving out of an area where the risk is not negligible, it says that imposing a waiting period can help reduce the risk; for these animals it recommends that measures should be based on identification and vaccination followed by testing or a second injection whenever a waiting time of more than 100 days is required, with a waiting time being applied according to the level of risk reduction required.

Any decision to change the rules is likely to involve political and practical considerations, as well as scientific ones. The efsa's report has clarified some of the scientific issues, but also highlights areas of uncertainty, and will not necessarily make that decision any easier. One of the issues that the eu will need to address as it seeks to harmonise the rules is that, while most eu member states are considered in the report to fall into the negligible risk category, some of them — Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia and Poland — do not.

Some of the observations in the efsa's report could add to pressure on the uk to amend some of the provisions of the pets, and it will be interesting to see how the Government responds. In January, defra published the results of two risk assessments it had itself commissioned on the pets. One dealt specifically with rabies, the other with the risk of exotic diseases other than rabies being introduced into the uk as pet movements increase (see VR, February 3, 2007, vol 160, p 137). A comment from the animal health minister, Mr Ben Bradshaw, indicated that the Government saw scope for changing the scheme — but if this is the case it should proceed with caution. Although it concluded that rabies vaccination was the most important measure to protect an animal against rabies before entry to the uk, defra's risk assessment noted that serological testing provided confidence that an animal had been successfully vaccinated and that there was good compliance with the rules in the country of origin. It also concluded that a waiting period and testing was vital if quarantine after importation was not used. With diseases like rabies, ensuring compliance with control measures is vital, and this could become more difficult if some of the existing controls are removed.

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