Wildlife experts working to eradicate rabies in southern Ontario are breathing a small sigh of relief as they see the number of confirmed cases slowly drop from the skyrocketing levels of 2016.
There have been 69 confirmed rabies cases in Ontario this year, with the bulk being in the Hamilton area. The majority of the cases in 2017 have been found in raccoons.
Over the same period in 2016 there were 134 confirmed cases. Last year there were 288 confirmed cases in total, up 264 from 2015.
It’s suspected that an infected raccoon made its way across the border in December 2015, inciting what has been Ontario’s biggest rabies outbreak in over a decade. Raccoons have been the primary carriers but cases have also increased in skunks, bats, and foxes.
“We had been rabies free since 2005,” says Beverly Stevenson, science transfer specialist in the research and wildlife area of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).
Stevenson says it’s the province’s vaccine-laced aerial bait drops that have been most effective in slowing the outbreak, but says it will take three to five years to get the situation under control.
In 2016, 1.6 million vaccine baits were dropped in the trouble zone, spanning from Toronto to Kitchener to Niagara.
Stevenson has been coordinating the drops for the last several years and says when it comes to controlling rabies, “It’s not the only way, but it’s the best way. It’s quick to get the baits out on the ground.”
Another method is to trap, vaccinate, and release animals, but that takes a lot more time and manpower, she explains.
As part of the response to this outbreak, the MNRF has amped up its rabies surveillance efforts by working with municipalities and humane societies to report and test potentially infected animals. Stevenson says most of the detection has come through this advanced surveillance method.
So far, the Hamilton and Niagara areas are the hot spots, with very few cases being reported in other parts of the province. “There is potential that it could spread, but with these programs, we have kept it contained in that area,” says Stevenson.
The confirmed rabies cases are fairly evenly split between rural and urban areas so Stevenson advises anyone who finds a dead animal on their property or sees one acting strangely to contact the MNRF rabies line at 1-888-574-6656.