State declares rabies epidemic along northern coast

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State epidemiologists say a rabies epizootic -- an epidemic among animals -- is under way in northern Alaska.

Since Oct. 1, the state virology laboratory in Fairbanks has tested 166 animal carcasses from rural villages. Microbiologists determined that 66 animals, a fraction under 40 percent, tested positive for rabies, said lab manager Don Ritter.

Microbiologists found rabies in 44 arctic foxes, 18 red foxes and four dogs. Most were from the North Slope, but animals from western and southwest Alaska also tested positive.

Exposure has not been limited to the animal world. So far 15 people, mostly in Nuiqsut, a village about 160 miles east of Barrow, have been exposed to rabies. Exposure usually means a bite that broke the skin.

''What you need to have contact with is an animal's saliva,'' said Dr. Louisa Castrodale, a state epidemiologist. Small children are considered exposed if their scratches or mucous membranes are licked after they play with dogs, though there is far less chance of the virus being transmitted that way.

Rabies is a virus that infects the central nervous system, causing brain disease and ultimately death.

Exposure for humans means five doses of vaccine administered through shots in the arm over four weeks, plus a shot of human rabies immune globulin, Castrodale said. The vaccine costs about $125 per shot and the globulin about $500 to $600. Many hospitals do not keep it on hand because of its short shelf life, but the state provides it for free to Alaskans exposed to rabies, Castrodale said.

The virology lab confirmed rabies in 18 animals from Barrow, nine from Nuiqsut, seven from Wainwright, and six from Point Lay.

Epidemics have been documented every three to five years. They correspond to the high ends of the cycle of the fox population, Ritter said, but do not occur in all regions at the same time.

Ritter's lab receives carcasses, or sometimes just heads, from village health aides, village public safety officers, city public safety officers, animal control officials and sanitarians.

Rabid foxes can be easy to spot. If a fox walks down the main street of a village and takes on the town's meanest dog, it's likely something's not right, Ritter said.

Sometimes rabid foxes stagger. They also take offense at motion. Rabid foxes have attacked tail rotors of helicopters, Ritter said. He's examined a fox flattened after it attacked a bulldozer.

At the other extreme, some infected animals act confused and sluggish. They're not apt to bite unless greatly aggravated and are more likely to quietly lay down and refuse to move.

If a rabid fox bites a dog, the virus usually shows up 18-25 days later. The virus moves up nervous system fiber about 2 millimeters per hour until it reaches the brain, Ritter said.

Symptoms show up sooner in dogs or humans bit in the face because the virus has a shorter route to the brain.

''You've got much less time than if you get bit on the foot,'' Castrodale.

Animals die within days after the virus reaches the brain.

Health officials take quick action when a suspect animal bites a villager, Ritter said.

''We bust our chops to get that animal quickly,'' he said.

The virology lab operates 24 hours a day to perform the 2 1/2 hour test to determine if an animal had rabies.

State epidemiologists recommend immediately destroying all unvaccinated animals exposed to a rabid fox.

The percentage of vaccinated dogs varies by community. Alaska's lay vaccinator program, begun in 1978, has cut down on the number of unprotected dogs but is dependent on volunteers.

Puppies are vulnerable to rabies because they cannot be vaccinated until they are 12 weeks old.

The North Slope Borough's public health officer in November instituted a rabies quarantine in coastal villages because of rabid foxes. The quarantines in Barrow, Wainwright, Point Hope, Point Lay, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik ban transporting animals on planes without certificates verifying the animal's health. The quarantine remains in effect.


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