By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday it will temporarily suspend importation of dogs from 113 countries classified as high risk for dog rabies effective July 14.
The suspension applies to all dogs, including puppies, emotional support dogs, and dogs that traveled out of the United States and returning from high-risk countries. It also includes dogs arriving from other countries if they have been in a high-risk country during the previous six months.
The CDC said the "temporary action is necessary to ensure the health and safety of dogs imported into the United States and to protect the public’s health against the reintroduction of canine rabies virus variant (dog rabies) into the United States."
Emily Pieracci, a veterinary medical officer at the CDC, told Reuters that over the last year during the COVID pandemic "there has been a significant increase in the number of dogs that are being imported and presenting fraudulent or falsified rabies vaccination certificates."The 113 countries include Russia, China, India, Brazil, Peru, Kenya, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belarus, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, Ecuador, Cuba, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, the CDC said.
Pieracci also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic many dog vaccination programs around the world have been suspended or canceled. She cited a growing number of canine rabies cases in Haiti and Peru as a result of dog vaccination cutbacks.
"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," Pieracci said.
The CDC has previously estimated 1.06 million dogs are imported into the United States annually. The CDC estimates the import ban, which it expects to last a year, will affect about 6% of dogs imported.
The CDC said because of COVID-19's impact on flight schedules, dogs denied entry are facing longer wait times to be returned to their country of departure, leading to illness and even death in some cases.
Dog rabies has been eliminated from the United States since 2007, but remains prevalent in many countries and kills 59,000 people annually around the world. Those deaths are preventable if vaccinated before onset of symptoms.
While dogs in the United States may still become infected by raccoons, skunks or bats, they will not catch dog-specific rabies from another dog.
The CDC on "an extremely limited basis" may grant advanced written approval permitting "importation of fully rabies-immunized dogs, 6 months or older, from a high-risk country."
Another issue is fraudulent rabies vaccination certifications. Dogs from high-risk countries cannot enter the United States until they are 16 weeks old and must be vaccinated.
There are few places to properly house dogs denied entry to the United States. The CDC has just one quarantine facility at New York's JFK airport for dogs and the lack of facilities has resulted in "unsafe" conditions for airport workers and for dogs, Pieracci said.
"Some of them have been housed in airline cargo warehouses for prolonged periods of time leading to illness and in some instances death of the dogs," Pieracci said. "We want people to be able to import dogs - but want them to do it safely."
Other countries like Australia, New Zealand and members of the European Union that have also eliminated dog rabies have significantly greater testing, screening and quarantine requirements than the United States, the CDC said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)