Rabies in Canada: What you should know
After a B.C. man died from a viral rabies infection and another potential exposure to the virus caused concern at Walt Disney World, Canadians may be concerned about this rare danger.
CTVNews.ca has put together a guide to rabies, its prevalence in Canada and what risks it poses to humans.
WHAT IS RABIES?
Rabies is a viral infection that spreads through the nervous system of every creature it infects, including humans.
It is most commonly found in wild animals such as raccoons, skunks and bats, but has been detected in everything from horses to llamas. It spreads through bites or other contact with the saliva of infected animals, and is almost always fatal.
"The most typical story when there is a bite is that it's what we call an unprovoked attack – you have some animal wandering and you haven't gone and threatened it," infectious disease specialist Dr. Neil Rau told CTV News Channel Tuesday.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, initial symptoms of rabies can feel like the flu, including chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, appetite loss and sleeping problems.
As the virus makes its way through the body, it attacks the central nervous system and ultimately the brain.
The length of time before a patient dies can vary significantly based on which part of their body was exposed to the disease.
"If you're bitten on the face, it could just be a couple of weeks before you develop the rabies encephalitis," Rau said, contrasting it to a case from Thailand where a man was bit on the foot and survived for 19 years as the virus slowly made its way up his body.
WHY AM I HEARING ABOUT RABIES NOW?
People at Disney's Epcot theme park were warned last weekend about the potential for rabies exposure after a feral cat tested positive for the virus.
Closer to home, B.C.'s health ministry revealed Monday that the province had reported its first human rabies fatality in more than 15 years. A Vancouver Island man died approximately six weeks after he was in contact with a bat.
It is believed that the man did not realize he had contracted rabies. Rau said that this scenario can be much more difficult for medical professionals and much scarier for patients.
IS RABIES COMMON IN CANADA?
In humans, no. There have been 26 known human cases of rabies in Canada since the 1920s. Prior to this week, the last was in Ontario in 2007.
The virus is, however, active in animals. Data from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency shows that animals in eight provinces and one territory tested positive for rabies in 2018. More than half of the positive tests occurred in Ontario.
Bats, raccoons and skunks made up 81 per cent of last year's positive tests. The virus was also found in foxes, dogs, cattle, one goat and one cat. A wolf in Quebec tested positive for rabies in April.
IS THERE A VACCINE?
There is, although it is not made available to the general public as a preventative measure. Vaccinations are generally reserved for wildlife workers, lab technicians and other people more likely than most to come into contact with the virus, as well as anyone who is believed to have been exposed to it..
"This is a complicated and expensive vaccine to give. It's five doses," Rau said.
It is easier for pets and livestock to be vaccinated against rabies. In fact, health officials recommend making these vaccinations routine.
AM I IN DANGER?
Rau's answer to that question is a definitive no.
"This is so rare that I don't think it's worth being concerned," he said.
"It's scary, but it's incredibly rare."
There is also some evidence that a rabies infection may notalways be a death sentence. Although there is no specific treatment for the virus, Rau noted that there was a case in Wisconsin where a teenage girl contracted the disease and survived.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF?
The Public Health Agency of Canada says the best thing people concerned about rabies can do is stay away from animals that might be rabid.
Beyond that, it also recommends that people avoid touching or feeding animals they do not know, report strange animal behaviours to the relevant local authorities, and closely supervise children when they are near animals.
Anyone who thinks they may have been exposed should immediately remove any clothing that may have been contaminated, wash any wounds with soap and water, and contact their health care provider or go to the hospital.