The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is enacting a temporary ban on imported dogs coming to the U.S. from over 100 countries, due to a heightened risk of rabies.
The new policy, as first reported by Reuters on Monday, will suspend the importation of dogs from 113 countries starting July 14. These countries include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, Ecuador, Cuba, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, and China, all of which are considered to be at high risk for rabies. The full list of banned countries can be viewed here; no European Union nations or the United Kingdom are on the list.
Rabies is a frightening viral disease spread through direct contact with an infected carrier’s saliva; this usually happens through a bite from the infected animal (theoretically, it could be spread from a human bite, but that’s never been documented). It’s almost always fatal in humans and the many animals that contract it, including dogs, typically causing flu-like illness at first and later confusion, hallucinations, aggression, excessive salivation, and a profound aversion to water. Fortunately, there’s been a highly effective rabies vaccine available for over a century—one that can even work if given shortly after exposure to the virus, before symptoms emerge, which can take weeks to months.
Historically, rabid dogs have been the major source of rabies in humans. But in the U.S., dog vaccination programs have driven the canine form of rabies locally extinct since 2007, and human rabies has nearly vanished along with it. Though there are species of wildlife in the U.S. that can still transmit rabies, annual cases of rabies in people now number in the single digits in the U.S. The same can’t be said everywhere, unfortunately; canine rabies remains endemic in many parts of the world, and it’s estimated that 59,000 people die of the virus every year globally.
In justifying the ban, CDC officials are citing the pandemic’s effects on rabies vaccination programs, with many countries having suspended them for the time being, as well as an uptick in falsified vaccine cards used to get these dogs through inspection. In some cases, dogs have been left waiting in storage to the point of illness or death after being denied entry due to fraudulent documentation, in part because of delays in flight schedules also affected by the pandemic.
“Given the impact that covid has had on these vaccination programs around the world, we’re not really sure what our rabies landscape is going to look like in the future,” Emily Pieracci, a veterinary medical officer at the CDC, told Reuters.
Despite the long list of banned countries, the CDC claims that the policy will have a small effect on the overall number of imported dogs. Approximately a million dogs are imported into the U.S. annually, and officials estimate that the ban, which is supposed to last a year, will affect 6% of these imports.
Though rabies isn’t a major local threat here anymore, that doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. This week, New York City health officials announced the start of their annual campaign to inoculate the city’s wild raccoon population against rabies by baiting them with fish-scented morsels of food containing the oral vaccine. These sorts of programs have been conducted in many countries, including the U.S., for decades now, and in New York City since 2014.