Rabies outbreak worries health officials
Health and wildlife officials confirmed a dramatic rise in rabid foxes in Nome and the region, after a winter of increased fox attacks on dogs and people. According to an ADF&G press release, of 61 foxes that were dispatched in Nome and the area, 23 percent (or 14 foxes) tested positive for rabies.
Of the 11 foxes that were found dead, or were killed by dogs or people because they behaved ‘rabid’, all tested positive.
In comparison, the 2021 rabies outbreak in foxes, saw 17 percent of foxes sampled testing positive for rabies, marking a six percent increase of detected rabies to this winter.
“Five to seven or eight percent or multiple rabies cases per day in one location really gets your attention,” said the state’s wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen.
Rabies is normally present at a low one percent level in wild red fox populations. A rise to three percent is considered epizootic, or an outbreak of rabies, posing both a wildlife and human health concern.
The official response included a cooperation between Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Environmental Program, City of Nome, the office of the state’s veterinarian, ADF&G and the USDA’s Wildlife Services, whose response team came to Nome to dispatch foxes and collect samples to better understand the factors causing the outbreak.
According to the press release, the Centers for Disease Control supplied ADF&G with rapid rabies test kits called Bionote, which can confirm in minutes if rabies is present in fox brain tissue. “This allowed faster confirmation of exposure to a person or dog , and on specimens that could not be tested by the Alaska State Virology Lab in Fairbanks,” the press release said.
NSHC’s Environmental Health Specialist Alicia Reitz said no people in Nome or the region have been infected with rabies, so far. She said that there have been at least four incidents where foxes attacked and bit dogs in the Nome area and in Brevig Mission, but none of the dogs seemed to have been infected. Guidelines after a dog is bit by a rabid animal is to give the dog a rabies booster shot and then keep the dog quarantined and away from other dos for 45 days to six months.
NSHC made a push to remind pet and dog owners in the region to have their canines vaccinated for rabies. While final numbers are not yet available, Reitz said, she had increased requests from lay vaccinators for vaccines.
The state veterinarian also said that the spread of avian influenza to foxes is a concern. In 2022, a fox in Unalaska and a rabid fox in Unalakleet tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian flu. “Foxes are susceptible to avian influenza because they scavenged on infected waterfowl that have died from the virus,” Dr. Beckmen said. “We want to do enhanced disease surveillance, assess exposure risk and test for multiple pathogens. We can do a lot more and understand what is going on in the population with freshly collected foxes.”
Reitz said she assist ADF&G to send fox carcasses out to the Alaska State Virology Lab in Fairbanks. She said they Goldstreak the samples to Fairbanks and get the results back after one and a half days, usually.
Asked if the outbreak is still ongoing, Reitz said that it seems so. “Just in the past week and a half we had a couple of foxes testing positive for rabies,” she said.
It is not known what prompted the severe outbreak of rabies in this region, but experts speculate that an abundance of lemmings in the 2021-2022 maybe had allowed for a fox boom cycle.
The best way to protect against encounters with rabies is to have pets vaccinated against rabies and keep dogs on a leash, not letting one’s dog roam unsupervised and not leaving garbage or dog food out, which may attract foxes.