While the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated controversies continue to dominate our collective attention, much older, more familiar diseases are still out there too, causing their old familiar – and deadly – problems. Rabies has once again reared its snarling head, this time in the small Arctic coastal community of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. Rabies is considered endemic in arctic foxes in northern Canada and historic outbreaks have occurred cyclically. The current outbreak is shaping up to be higher in terms of the peak seen in past cycles, so the surrounding communities in the Beaufort Delta region are on high alert as well. Since November 2020, there have been 8 or 9 reports of foxes attacking domestic dogs in the area. Foxes involved in biting incidents and those exhibiting concerning behaviours within and around the local community have been caught and submitted for rabies testing (which is no mean task when you need to get the samples out of a remote northern community in the dead of winter). So far, no less than 5 foxes have tested positive for rabies, and more results are pending. At least 8 dogs have been euthanized due to confirmed or suspected rabies exposure through fox bites, or in some cases, due to signs of rabies in the dogs themselves following a known or suspected fox interaction. Unfortunately, coordinating mandatory quarantine for dogs in these situations is often not feasible. Access to veterinary care is limited to absent in high Arctic communities, so most dogs are unvaccinated, despite living in a rabies endemic area. Strategies that are being implemented for the protection of human and domestic animal health, in cooperation with the territorial Departments of Health and Social Services and Environment and Natural Resources, include distribution of dog vaccines, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for human exposure cases, and human rabies vaccines for at-risk individuals; increased education/awareness in communities regarding bite prevention, rabies awareness, and dog husbandry considerations; and enhanced monitoring for wildlife rabies. A local community member and a few officers have also been trained as lay community vaccinators to facilitate ongoing preventative vaccination of dogs (due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of communities like Tuktoyaktuk).
For those of us living a little (or a lot) further south, this situation is an important reminder of what can happen when endemic wildlife rabies meets a large population of unvaccinated dogs, and the risk this centuries-old virus still poses to people and animals alike. In Ontario, by law, all dogs and cats over 3 months of age must be kept up-to-date on rabies vaccination. Even animals that live almost exclusively indoors can be exposed to rabies through contact with bats, so it’s still important to vaccinate them in order to protect everyone – people and pets – in the household. It’s also critical to be aware of the risk of rabies in dogs imported from endemic areas (including northern Canada), especially when they could have been exposed to the virus before they were vaccinated.