Germany tightens rabies strategy

After the disease threatened to spread into France, reference lab takes corrective action

By | August 10, 2005

Germany's federal rabies control agency has instituted "corrective actions" in its vaccination strategy after France's top rabies control official earlier this year sharply criticized Germany for an increase in wildlife rabies that had threatened to spill over into France.

Thomas Müller, head of Germany's National Reference Laboratory for Rabies, based at the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute's Federal Research Institute for Animal Health, told The Scientist this week that he believes recent and planned vaccination efforts might result in the eradication of rabies in Germany.

The country experienced a surge in rabies cases in the last quarter of last year and first quarter of this year, causing concern and consternation in neighboring France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, each of which had succeeded in eradicating wildlife rabies in recent years.

In the last quarter of 2004, there were 23 cases of rabies (16 foxes, 3 roe deer, 4 bats) reported in Germany, up from 15 (7 foxes, 1 badger, 7 bats) the previous quarter, according to the World Health Organization's Rabies Bulletin Europe. In the first quarter of this year, 25 cases (1 horse, 1 roe deer, 23 foxes) were reported, Müller said, adding that in the second quarter only 11 cases (2 bats, 9 foxes) were reported.

"Due to corrective actions in the vaccination strategy, no further spread of the rabies epidemic has been observed for the past 4 months," Müller told The Scientist via E-mail. "The rabies cases in the second quarter of this year exclusively occurred in the hot spot areas in the border area between Hesse and Rhineland Palatinate. France and the other western neighboring countries were and still are outside the danger zone."

He said that one of Germany's past mistakes was to base vaccination strategy on relatively low fox densities in rural settings, although the disease in Germany had moved to suburban and urban areas with very high fox densities. "This is a phenomenon no other country in Europe was confronted with," he said.

He said a lack of cooperation between state rabies agencies had also been a problem, but since the beginning of the year the National Reference Laboratory for Rabies at the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute has been "much more deeply involved in the planning, management, and evaluation of the vaccination campaigns than before." All involved agencies now meet every six months under the auspices of the National Reference Laboratory for Rabies.

Müller, who also is head of the World Health Organization's German Collaborating Centre for Rabies Surveillance and Research, said it was difficult to forecast future effectiveness of current vaccination campaigns, but said the "clear downward trend" in the past three months makes him very optimistic.

"Our goal is the elimination of the last rabies cases in Germany as soon as possible, maybe this year, and all our measures are directed toward this goal," he said. "But as we all know, there is no absolute guarantee."

In early May, Florence Cliquet, director of the rabies laboratory of Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments in Nancy, suggested that Germany had failed to adapt its control efforts to recommendations for oral vaccinations of foxes issued in 2002 by the European Union. She said: "From my point of view, the tools, the means, are available to combat rabies. Probably Germany does not use the tools very well."

A member of her staff told The Scientist that fox vaccinations in a large area of eastern France on the German border was carried out in May, with a follow-up vaccination planned for early autumn. "We are vaccinating as a protective measure," the staff member said. "We want to make sure rabies does not come into France."

This week, Müller said: "We can understand that our neighbours were worried; we were not happy about this development either. However, the communication should have been based on solid facts and not primarily on unfounded accusations."

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