During January and February 2023, wildlife and health officials in Alaska responded to increasing numbers of foxes in the Nome area acting aggressive both to humans and dogs, as well as showing other signs consistent with rabies.
Anticipating this might be the cusp of a larger fox rabies outbreak, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Wildlife Services (USDA – WS) directed staff to do enhanced surveillance on foxes in the city of Nome and collect additional data to better understand the factors causing this outbreak. Officials alerted the public of the rabies risks and gave advice on prevention and response.
The CDC donated Bionote rabies test kits to ADF&G. These kits can confirm in minutes if rabies is present (or not) in fox brain tissue, rather than the hours previously required. This allowed faster confirmation of exposure to a person or dog, and on specimens that could not be tested by the Alaska State Virology Laboratory (ASVL) in Fairbanks.
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“Now we can test everything, even foxes in poor condition, and fast,” ADF&G Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen said. “The rapid test helped us react more quickly and alert the public.”
Preliminary 2023 results show of the 11 that were found dead or killed in Nome by dogs or because they appeared rabid, 100% were positive. Overall, of 61 red foxes from the area in and around Nome in February and March 2023, 23% were positive.
Rabies is normally present at a very low level in red fox populations, about one percent, known as an
enzootic level. A rise to three percent in the population is considered an epizootic level – temporarily more prevalent.
“Five to seven or eight percent or multiple rabies cases per day in one location really gets your attention,” Dr. Beckmen said.
Rabies vaccination of pet dogs remains the most critical step in preventing rabies exposure to Alaskans. Vaccination and control of stray and feral dog populations and eliminating fox attractants such as dog food and garbage left available is important. Foxes transmit rabies to dogs, and then unvaccinated dogs transmit it to people.
“Dogs represent the greatest risk of transmitting rabies to people. It’s very important all dogs be vaccinated appropriately,” Dr. Beckmen said.
She added that it’s not yet known what factors have precipitated this severe outbreak. However, there
are reports of unexpectedly high fox populations. Abundant lemmings in 2021-22 would also have allowed a fox reproduction boom adding many young susceptible foxes into the region.
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