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Europe-wide rabies alert

THE EUROPEAN Commission has issued an EU-wide rabies alert after a dog was found carrying the deadly disease in southwest France, where hundreds of thousands of tourists have spent the summer holidays.

The European Union executive took the rare step of warning all EU governments to ensure that recently-returned holidaymakers were aware of the case, in particular visitors to a number of local festivals in the past few weeks.

"Anyone having had contacts with that dog should consult his/her doctor to be treated appropriately. If not treated in time rabies is fatal," said the EU executive, which issued the alert via its EU Early Warning and Response System.

French authorities said they were urgently hunting for seven people who may have been infected after contact with an illegally imported rabid dog. They included a jogger aged 35-40 who was bitten by the dog in mid-August in the south-western town of Bordeaux. The animal died of rabies a few days later.

Six people in the city of Bordeaux have been vaccinated following the discovery, local officials in the department of Gironde confirmed last week.

Authorities are also looking for a French couple of North African origin and their two children and for a Spanish woman and her young daughter who were seen walking with a small white dog in Bordeaux around August 10-11. The rabid dog's owner frequently walked the animal in Bordeaux in August. The dog was imported illegally in July, authorities said. The risk of infection was heightened because the dog was infectious for nearly three weeks from the start of August until it died at the end of the month, Brussels said.

"The problem here is it has been a very long time and the owner has been with his dog to many of these festivals where lots of tourists are," said Beate Gminder, a Commission spokeswoman.

The four-month-old dog was infectious from August 2-21, the Commission said, detailing dates and locations where the dog had been, including Bordeaux and a number of festivals in the Dordogne, Gironde and Lot and Garonne regions.

Since the alarm was raised last week, 55 people have contacted an emergency centre set up at the local administration.

Rabies, which attacks the nervous system and can paralyse the entire body, is transmitted to people by dogs, cats, livestock and certain wild animals and birds. Since 1977, 19 cases of human rabies have been reported in France. All of those infected contracted the disease abroad. The Commission spokeswoman said there were on average one to three rabies cases in the EU per year.

The rabid puppy was reportedly illegally imported from Morocco and brought into France on July 11 by a resident of Bordeaux. The Commission spokeswoman said there was no question of the dog having entered the EU under currently-changing EU rules for pets travelling between EU countries.

The EU is in the process of introducing an EU-wide Pet Passport scheme, but is applying transitional arrangements this summer until October 1 when only the EU document will be valid.

The dog’s owner faces up to two years in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros for importing the dog illegally.