Health

Barrow under rabies quarantine after November rabid fox case

Anyone flying out of Barrow with a pet will need a special letter from the borough authorizing travel through Dec. 15. That's because Barrow is under a rabies quarantine following confirmation of a rabid Arctic fox in town mid-November.

"When we have animals, foxes or dogs, that test positive for rabies in Barrow or one of the other North Slope villages, the borough policy is that we go under a 30-day quarantine, and it serves a couple of purposes," said Dr. Sarah Coburn, public health officer and veterinarian in Barrow.

The disease incubates for varying lengths of time, so it gives a month for additional cases to appear while the public is on alert. It's also a reminder to the public that rabies is present on the Slope and that it's important to take steps to protect pets and people.

"Part of what it does is notifies the community that we had a recent case test positive for rabies and it's a reminder to make sure that your dogs are current on vaccines and make sure your dogs are tied up," she said. "It's a bit of a public awareness effort."

Rabies is endemic in the fox population on the Slope, meaning it's commonly found at low levels among the population, whether or not it manifests itself into the stereotypical cases people think of when rabies comes to mind.

That's why it's important to be cautious with area wildlife, said Coburn, and to report animals acting abnormally.

"Sometimes we get calls that a fox is acting particularly strangely, very aggressive," she said. "We had one a couple of winters ago that was attacking plane tires on an Alaska Airlines flight at the airport, so that's clearly abnormal behavior."

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In this recent case, officials got a call about a fox that was hanging around a house, hiding out underneath it, and not running away when people would approach -- all atypical behaviors for a wild animal.

"It happened over the weekend and the police were available to dispatch the animal and get it to us for testing," she said.

It tested positive. They checked on loose dogs in the area but didn't find any obvious signs they'd been exposed.

"We didn't find a known bite on an animal but it definitely could have had contact with outdoor animals in that area," said Coburn.

Winter is often a time when foxes make their way closer to town and the chance of contact with domesticated animals rises.

A few weeks ago, the village of Wainwright was put under a similar rabies quarantine after a rabid fox was found in town. Each year there will typically be a few quarantines around the Slope.

Two steps that residents can take to protect themselves and their animals is to tie up dogs that are outside so they aren't wandering loose and to get them vaccinated.

By state law and borough code, pet dogs must be vaccinated for rabies first at 12 weeks old and then at 1 year old.

"With an outdoor dog, the biggest issue that we've seen are animals that are kept outside before they get that first vaccine," said Coburn. "They're at high risk because they can't be vaccinated before 12 weeks for it to be effective. So, when they first get them from a new litter of puppies when they're 8 weeks old -- that eight weeks to 12 weeks until they get their first vaccine, those animals should be kept inside or at least in a garage or something so they can't come into contact with a rabid animal."

The rabies vaccine is distributed free by the veterinary office in Barrow. People just need to call the office to make an appointment to bring in their pets. The vaccine is very effective, said Coburn, and the chances of a vaccinated dog getting rabies even if bitten by a rabid animal is extremely low.

For people living in the villages, a veterinarian and technician make spring and fall visits to each community and go door-to-door doing vaccinations. The gap, said Coburn, is if someone gets a puppy during the summer or winter, when vets aren't on hand.

However, because of a state program put in place in the 1970s, non-veterinary personnel are allowed to give the vaccine in rural areas. In many villages, police officers, fire department personnel and public health aides have been certified.

"It's easiest if someone does have a new puppy in the village if they call us and then we can get them in touch with one of our lay vaccinators," said Coburn.

The lay vaccinators program, while it does deal with animal health to some degree, is a function of the Alaska Division of Public Health, Section of Epidemiology.

"We do get some questions about why the health department would be concerned with animal health," said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist and public health veterinarian with the state.

"The premise behind it is rabies lives in a wildlife reservoir and in Alaska that wildlife tends to be foxes. The idea of vaccinating a dog is to kind of create this buffer between the wildlife with rabies and the humans."

From 1975 through 1980, 182 people in the state of Alaska received post-exposure prophylaxis for rabies, according to a brief published in the Alaska Journal of Public Health in 1982.

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Of those who were treated, 80 percent had been exposed to rabid dogs, more than half of which were puppies between 3 and 6 months old, and all of which were unvaccinated.

As a result, in 1978, the state set up a program to encourage animal control and dog and cat vaccination in the state, especially in rural areas with high rates of rabies in fox populations. Through the lay vaccinator program, non-veterinary personnel were put through a training course and certified to vaccinate dogs free of charge in underserved areas.

It was run through the public health department because at that time, rabies posed a significant public health risk to the population; there were hundreds of cases of exposure.

"So, that was the whole idea -- a public health measure to reduce the number of people who are going to need to have rabies post-exposure medication and treatment," said Castrodale. "It was a way to reduce that impact to people by a simple intervention of vaccinating the dogs that are that vehicle from wildlife into the home."

About a decade ago, the department reviewed the program to make sure it was reaching the areas that needed it the most. In Alaska, the northern and western coastal areas are enzootic regions, or places where rabies is always present in the fox population. It's been found from the Canadian border to Barrow, Kotzebue, Bethel, Dillingham and out to the western tip of the Aleutians.

The department then worked to fill in the gaps in areas that had the need but not the corresponding resources.

"The idea is also somewhat of a community buffer," she said. "If you can get a certain proportion of your dogs vaccinated, you create kind of a protective ring around your village or your location as opposed to thinking about just your individual animal. This is all about trying to reduce the community burden."

Even if dogs are vaccinated, people should still always keep an eye out for wildlife displaying signs of rabies. There are two common forms -- dumb and furious. With the dumb form, animals often seem lethargic or otherwise unmoved by ordinary stimuli.

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However, said Coburn, foxes and other wildlife can become habituated to people over time and lose their fear of human contact, especially if there's a reliable food source, like a dumpster, in a populated area.

"The furious form is the more aggressive," said Coburn. "That's what people typically think about with rabies. Here what we've heard people describe is a dog attacking their own chain, which they've never done before, attacking their dog house, foxes attacking telephone poles. For our domestic dogs, it's common to see excessive salivating or foaming at the mouth as they're not able to swallow because of the neurological damage."

Regardless of whether a domestic or wild animal acting strangely has rabies, Coburn said it's important for people to report the animal to officials who can safely check it out.

For more information, to schedule a vaccination appointment, or to find a lay vaccinator in your village, contact the North Slope Borough Vet at 907-852-0277.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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