State health and environment officials are warning residents of Western Alaska and the Bering Strait region to vaccinate pets and be wary of wildlife because of an unprecedented rabies outbreak.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a high number of cases of rabies,” said Dr. Robert Gerlach with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The number of rabies cases varies year to year, but the Bering Strait region normally sees only four or five animals with confirmed cases each year, according to a statement from Alaska’s health and environmental conservation departments. Since October, over 35 cases have been confirmed in the area, officials said.
Cases have been reported along the coast from Bristol Bay to the North Slope, but Nome had the largest number of cases, Gerlach said.
The rabies virus is generally carried by arctic or red foxes, Gerlach said. The arctic fox population usually cycles through high and low stages depending on the population size of the arctic hare. Gerlach said there’s an abundance of both animals now, which is contributing to the outbreak.
“Then we just see an increased interaction among those foxes in the other animals, other carnivores, that will go ahead and have the opportunity to spread the virus,” he said.
Rabies was also confirmed in a river otter, which Gerlach said has not happened in more than 20 years — showing the extent of spread happening in wild animals.
Rabies is a deadly disease and poses a serious public health problem. Animals who have contracted rabies generally act in one of two ways: Either they become extremely aggressive, or they enter into a depressed and complacent phase, potentially causing them to wander around disoriented and or defensively attack, Gerlach said.
Several people have been exposed to dogs who had rabies and underwent a rabies treatment plan or vaccine plan to make sure they were safe, Gerlach said.
The outbreak was complicated by a simultaneous outbreak of distemper, which often looks similar to rabies and is also deadly for dogs. Distemper has no treatment and has a high mortality rate, and an adult dog has about a 50% chance of survival, Gerlach said. The distemper outbreak made it difficult to discern which disease sick dogs were dealing with, he said.
Both rabies and distemper can be prevented through annual vaccinations for pets, and vaccinations are the best way to protect pets and people because they reduce the chance of spreading disease.
“The other thing is to keep your pet contained and not let them run loose, especially where they might interact with a wild fox or a rabid fox that may enter the community and expose the dog,” Gerlach said.