Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief veterinary officer says a “significant” and widespread outbreak of rabies in Labrador is cause for concern.

The province’s Natural Resources Department has confirmed 16 cases of rabies in red foxes since January, 12 of which were found in Labrador City and Wabush.

Prior to this year, the last confirmed case was in 2005.

But chief veterinary officer Dr. Hugh Whitney said it’s not only the number of cases that is worrisome, but also how widespread the disease is across Labrador.

“This one is quite a significant (outbreak),” said Whitney from his office in St. John’s. “There are few places left on our map that it hasn’t touched.”

“We have 15 cases, which is not a large number, but 15 cases over a very large geographic area suggests that it could really be 100 cases, could be 500 cases in reality.”

Whitney said that 10 people have been vaccinated for exposure to rabies this year for incidents ranging from bites to handling the carcasses.

“Rabies is a significant concern because… we have the added problem that it affects all mammals. It can get into dog populations. Dogs can affect people or foxes can attack people,” said Whitney, adding that the disease is preventable in humans, but needs to be identified.

Whitney, who has been the province’s chief veterinary officer for more than 26 years, said the disease’s seven-year absence is not unusual, as outbreaks run in cycles. But officials have little foresight, as a number of factors makes it difficult to predict when the next outbreak will happen.

The Arctic serves as a permanent reservoir for Canadian fox rabies, said Whitney. He said Arctic foxes bring the disease down into northern Quebec and Labrador and infect the region’s red foxes. If the red fox population is high and food is scarce, the diseased animals will start moving away from the woods and into communities, he said.

“So, for the years between 2005 and 2012… there could have very well have been an outbreak of rabies, but there wasn’t enough foxes around for the foxes to actually come to the communities and exhibit the outbreak,” said Whitney.

Whitney said public education is paramount when dealing with an outbreak, as little can be done to prevent or eradicate it.

“We cannot influence the wildlife populations, nor their movement,” said Whitney.

He said the disease has twice been quarantined on the island of Newfoundland, but the same is not possible for Labrador.

“We cannot get rid of it, that’s a reality in our wildlife populations.”

Whitney said the chances of rabies moving to other provinces this year is not likely, but not non-existent.

“Certainly we’ve seen nothing to suggest… that it’s going to go any further than northern Quebec and Labrador,” said Whitney.

Rabies starts almost 100 per cent of the time with a bite, Whitney explained. The virus then travels through the nervous system to the brain, causing the infected animal to become rabid or dumb, he said.

Whitney said the disease can last anywhere from two weeks to six months.

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