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Rabid wolf shot in Interior Alaska prompts concern for local animals

Laurel Andrews

A wolf shot in Interior Alaska has tested positive for rabies, the first animal to test positive for the virus so far inland.

The wolf was shot in late March after approaching a trapper in the Chandalar Lake area, roughly 180 miles north of Fairbanks, near the Brooks Range. “This is not normal behavior” for a wolf, state wildlife biologist Cathie Harms said.

While the rabies virus is present along the northern and western coasts of Alaska, this is the first time an animal has tested positive south of the Brooks Range. “We don’t know if it’s a single solitary case, or if there are more animals that have been exposed,” Harms said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is hoping to collect tissue samples from any wolf, wolverine, fox or coyote killed in the Chandalar Lakes portion of a region called the Fortymile area to determine whether this was an outbreak of the virus or an isolated incident. To test for the virus, tissue samples are collected from the frozen head of the animal at a state laboratory in Fairbanks.

“People in that area should be on high alert,” said Dr. Robert Gerlach, state veterinarian.

“Animals with rabies might be fearless in approaching people, attacking inanimate moving objects, or be unable to run or move normally,” Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen said in a press release sent out Tuesday morning. 

Rabies can present itself in a variety of forms, Gerlach said. There is a “dumb form,” when an animal acts depressed or disassociated, and may have a drooping head or be drooling from the mouth. There is also an “aggressive form,” when an animal acts extremely aggressive, and may chew on inanimate objects, or attack something.

Foxes: Most common carriers of rabies in Alaska

Transmission of the virus generally comes when an infected animal scratches or bites another animal. The virus can also be transmitted from the carrion of an infected animal. Injuries sustained from an animal that may have rabies should be reported to a health-care provider immediately, and the animal saved to determine if the rabies vaccine is needed, the press release said.

Gerlach said that the number of rabies cases varies every year, but cases increase every three to five years, most likely due to an increase in the Arctic hare population. As the Arctic hare increase, so does the number of foxes, the most common carriers of the virus. As Alaska’s climate shifts “we’re worried that the red fox moving into the area will spread the virus into other parts of the state,” he said.

“We really don’t know what the prevalence is of rabies in wildlife,” Gerlach continued. In the last two years, the state has stepped up testing measures and have tested more than 1,000 animals for the virus. They found that 3 percent of red foxes in the Bethel area tested positive for rabies. The state has also documented the first case of rabies in a wolverine on the North Slope.

In the press release on Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced it will be expanding its lay vaccinator program, where  trained civilians vaccinate pets, as a result of the March incident.

Gerlach also urged people get their dogs, cats and ferrets vaccinated for the virus. “Our greatest risk of exposure is going to be our pets,” he said, as they may come into contact with an infected animal in the wild, and bring the infection back into a person's home.

Lastly, the state urges people to dispose of animal carcasses near where they are killed, instead of transporting them to a different area of the state. That will help prevent the spread of possible infections to different areas.

In humans, rabies is nearly always fatal once symptoms are exhibited. The first symptoms are flu-like, such as fever or headache. Over the course of two to 10 days, the disease progresses to cerebral dysfunction and agitation, and the person may experience hallucinations and insomnia as the virus progresses into the brain, eventually causing death. 

This is a developing story. Return for updates. Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com

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