Rabid Unalakleet fox also tests positive for bird flu
By Peter Loewi
A red fox in Unalakleet, killed last month for exhibiting abnormal behaviors, tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in addition to testing positive for rabies. It is the second fox in Alaska to test positive for HPAI, but according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Conservation, it is not known how the fox contracted the virus. A red fox in Dutch Harbor that died in April was presumed to have contracted the bird flu after scavenging infected dead birds.
Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, ADF&G Wildlife Health Veterinarian wrote in an email several days prior to the positive bird flu test result in the Unalakleet fox that “there is also likely highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in foxes that have been eating birds dying from the virus. They also can show similar neurologic signs as rabies and distemper.” The fox in Unalakleet tested negative for distemper, but “there have been more cases tested positive for rabies and suspected based on behavior,” she wrote.
Rabies had been the topic of the original inquiry to Beckmen, because as Racheal Lee, director of the Office of Environmental Health at Norton Sound Health Corporation put it, “the rabies activity in this region over the last 1.5 years has truly been something to reckon with!” In an average year the region has four or five cases, but between October 2020 and June 2021, there were over 35 rabies cases confirmed in dogs, foxes and a river otter. The majority of that was in last year’s outbreak, and the numbers are coming down.
Alicia Reitz, Environmental Health Specialist at NSHC, explained that in addition to the fox in Unalakleet, earlier this year, nine foxes were sent in from Savoonga, two of which tested positive for rabies. Two dogs were also confirmed rabid in Gambell.
NSHC has been sponsoring Alaska Native Rural Veterinary to vaccinate and conduct spay/neuter in Gambell, working with the city and Dr. Bob Gerlach, the state veterinarian, on a plan. Reitz said that Lee went in April to Gambell and conducted over 100 rabies vaccinations, as well as trained a Lay Vaccinator. Reitz was also recently in Stebbins, where she worked with the city to train a Lay Vaccinator, and vaccinated 83 dogs and two cats. She’s next headed to Wales, and anyone interested in becoming a Lay Vaccinator should contact her.
Though rabies, distemper, and HPAI are all presenting similar symptoms in foxes, rabies poses a serious risk to humans. Reitz says that the only way to know what is affecting the animal is to test, as rabies, if untreated, is 100 percent fatal to humans. She explained that there are a few different ways that testing can be done for samples from the region if human exposure is suspected.
OEH works with medical providers to assess risk in the case of bites. The majority of dog bites are in kids, so parents should teach kids to let a trusted adult know if they have been licked or bitten by a dog. Rabid animals don’t show fear.
There is an easy way to prevent infections. “Vaccinate your dogs,” Reitz said. “That’s the best way to prevent rabies in humans.”