Health officials in Hamilton have confirmed the city’s first case of bat rabies this year and are calling for citizens to take precautionary steps to reduce the risk of contracting the deadly disease.
“Hamilton has a high number of rabid raccoons and skunks, and the highest amount for Ontario,” says Richard MacDonald, program manager for Public Health Services. “We need people to stay away from wildlife, in particular raccoons, skunks, bats, and unknown dogs and cats. Our overall goal is to prevent human cases of rabies —as rabies is almost always fatal.”
At last count, 121 rabid animals have been found in the Hamilton area this year -72 raccoons, 48 skunks and now one bat. The region is in the midst of a new rabies outbreak, with officials suspecting that an infected raccoon most likely brought the virus to the area by train or truck from the United States.
“Raccoon rabies is very common up and down all the eastern-seaboard states,” said Chris Davies, head of wildlife research with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. “There's lots of truck and train traffic that comes in from there.”
Rabies outbreaks are controllable, mostly through vaccination programs such as the spreading of anti-rabies vaccine pellets targeted at skunks and raccoons, but the virus usually takes a few years to be eliminated from an area. Quebec dealt with an outbreak in the mid 2000s that lasted three years and a previous outbreak first noticed in 1999 in Brockville, Ontario, took six years to be eliminated.
“The numbers (in Hamilton) are what's to be expected,” Davies said. “In 1999, the (rabies) outbreak peaked in Year 3 and we're only six months in here.”
Rabies is a reportable disease under Canada’s Health of Animals Act, and all suspected cases must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for verification. Last year, the CFIA tested over 2,000 submitted samples and confirmed rabies in 151 cases. While rabies can be transmitted to humans from a number of rabid animals – dogs are the most common – bats with rabies are often seen to be more of a concern since bat bites can go undetected. Althoughtreatable with rabies vaccine, cases of rabies that have progressed to the point where clinical signs appear (erratic behaviour, paralysis of the jaw and throat, for example) usually result in death.
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While only 24 humans deaths have occurred in Canada over the past century, the disease is still a major killer worldwide. A recent study determined that about 59,000 people die every year of rabies transmitted by dogs -that’s about 160 rabies deaths every day– with the greatest risk located in the world’s poorest regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and India.
Researchers determine that the economic losses due to rabies are an estimated $8.6 billion USD a year but that investment in rabies prevention strategies pay off in the end. They found that countries with extensive dog vaccination programs supplemented by access to human rabies vaccines have seen their numbers of deaths drop nearly to zero as a result.
Smartphone technology can play a role in rabies prevention, too. Officials working with the city of Ranchi in eastern India have used an app to track the city’s free-roaming dog population so as to monitor the extent of vaccination coverage. Health teams vaccinated more than 6,000 dogs in 18 districts of the city and uploaded their information including exact location via the app Mission Rabies. Officials were then able to monitor regions to determine where and when vaccination rates fell below 70 per cent of the dog population -a threshold number seen to be sufficient to cut the risk of rabies infections in people.
“We have shown that mobile technology can help to monitor the efforts of large scale vaccination of free roaming dogs in real time,” says Dr Richard Mellanby, of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, Scotland.