When Virus News Goes Viral: Ontario Deals with Rabies Outbreak


Producers can take heart in the approaches underway by provincial authorities to get a handle on two rabies outbreaks in southern Ontario.

The outbreaks, involving terrestrial rabies (not bat rabies) have officials turning to proven control methods — and social media, through the Ontario Animal Health Network (OAHN) — to keep the disease in check. They have a successful disease-control track record, having conquered a similar terrestrial rabies situation a decade ago and ridding the province of the title of the wildlife rabies capital of North America, which it held in the 1970s and 1980s. And through the OAHN, they’re connecting veterinarians, producers and wildlife officials with weekly updates on this stubborn disease, and the potential effects on livestock.

But even under the best recovery scenario, it could take up to five years to rid the province of this rabies incursion, and return southern Ontario to near terrestrial rabies-free status.

Racoon-strain rabies has been found in the greater Hamilton area — the first of its kind since 2005. Map via the Ontario Government.
Racoon-strain rabies has been found in the greater Hamilton area — the first of its kind since 2005. Map via the Ontario Government.

Here’s why. Since December 4, 2015, in the main outbreak of what’s called raccoon-variant rabies centred around Hamilton, officials have found an average of four new cases of rabies every week. It’s suspected a rabid raccoon — dubbed an “interloper” — somehow hitched a ride from the rabies-prone northeastern USA aboard a truck or another vehicle, and spread the disease upon arriving here.

It’s a significant outbreak. As of last week, 170 raccoon-variant rabies cases were confirmed, with 118 involving raccoons and 52 in skunks.

A large proportion of the rabid animals are urban cases. In fact, 150 are in the greater Hamilton area. But rabid animals have appeared in nearby Haldimand, Brant and Niagara counties as well, close to farms.

The other outbreak is in Perth County. There, two cases of fox rabies have been found, one in a bovine and one in skunk from the same area. These cases probably weren’t the result of a hitchhiker, but more likely are remnants of the virus that was so widespread across the province for decades, until it was beaten back by the oral rabies vaccine baiting programs led by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). The baiting programs have been wildly successful, having knocked down terrestrial rabies cases by more than 99 per cent since the 1990s. They almost had it licked.

Photo by the Government of Ontario
Rabies vaccine baits are dropped for foxes, raccoons and skunks as part of the provincial government’s baiting program. Photo by the Government of Ontario.

But now that it’s back, the province’s MNRF is trying again, dropping marshmallow-scented oral vaccine baits by helicopters and Twin Otter airplane in rural areas, and distributing them by hand in urban areas. More than 900,000 baits – army green in colour, about the size of a loonie — have been distributed since December 2015, another 500,000 or so will be distributed in the late summer and fall.

The two-year-old OAHN is helping raise awareness of the problem through social media. In years gone by, officials didn’t have this tool at their disposal during rabies outbreaks, to offer producers advice about to how to avoid the disease, and what to do if they encounter infected animals.

The network has an interest in all animal diseases. Its advisory committee includes species experts, including researchers from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, to give producers advice on animal diseases that have or could be advancing into Ontario.

The network has distributed information about several diseases, including Lyme disease. But by far, raccoon rabies has been its most active topic — it went viral, in fact, when news broke in the winter. That’s understandable, considering there hadn’t been an outbreak in more than a decade, then it suddenly reappeared in an area that had never had raccoon rabies before.

Dr. Maureen Anderson, lead veterinarian, Animal Health and Welfare, Veterinary Science Unit, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, advises producers to work with their veterinarian if an animal is showing unusual signs or behaviour, which might point to rabies — including neurological conditions, aggression, lethargy, gait problems, or problems swallowing.

Anderson says producers should be more aware than ever of rabies, but not alarmed. It’s not an exotic disease; we’ve always had in Ontario, and it has indeed been nearly eliminated before from terrestrial wildlife. But it can be a threat to humans if they are in contact with a rabid animal, and it’s fatal in essentially all cases once signs appear.

As well, Anderson underlines the importance of vaccinating farm dogs and cats against rabies, given that they could be the first to encounter rabid wildlife, then pass on the virus on to livestock. She also suggests farmers in affected areas try to reduce potential exposure to raccoons and skunks by choosing to graze their livestock during the day rather than the evening, when nocturnal wildlife is on the move.

Farmers, vacationers, truckers and anyone else who might have an interloping raccoon or skunk in their vehicle need to take precautions and check for signs of wildlife onboard.

Producers can follow the raccoon rabies situation through the OAHN’s website, and Facebook or Twitter, for podcasts, disease alerts, and other pertinent information.

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