Australian health authorities are watching with alarm the spread of rabies through nearby Indonesia, fearful that the lethal virus could be brought into remote northern Australia by illegal fishing boats.
Rabies appeared in Bali in 2008, where it has since killed more than 130 people, and has spread through 24 of Indonesia's 33 provinces. It has now appeared on the island of Pulau Larat, 600km north of Darwin, causing 19 deaths in 2010. Worldwide, it kills about 55,000 people a year.
The federal Quarantine Inspection Service said the virus was endemic throughout much of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe.
"Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Papua New Guinea, and Pacific Island nations are free of endemic rabies, but it must be remembered that this can change at any time," the department said.
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Veterinary officials believe that though the chances of any early emergence of the virus in Australia is unlikely, the prospects of it arriving eventually is growing with the speed of its spread throughout the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. It is able to move so rapidly because dogs - the main carrier - are not vaccinated in what had previously been a rabies-free country.
Australia is helping with massive vaccination programmes in Indonesia in a bid to stem the advance of the virus before it moves into Papua New Guinea and, potentially, into the vast Northern Territory. If it did establish itself, authorities fear it would spread quickly through wild dog populations and the large number of dogs living in remote indigenous communities.
Dogs are not vaccinated in Australia. With an incubation period of several months, rabies could move rapidly before anyone knew it had arrived.
"If rabies became established in Australia the disease could profoundly change our way of life," the quarantine service said. "Rabies could be very difficult to eradicate if it became established in native wildlife, and if dogs and cats became infected then it would be necessary for pet owners to regularly vaccinate their pets."
Stray animals would become real threats. Although most victims are bitten by rabid dogs, other animals - including cats - can be carriers. Around the world people have been killed by infected foxes, cattle, monkeys, weasels, and other species.