Rabies virus dormant in northern Canada | Polarjournal
Seventy-three percent of study respondents were unaware that they were at risk of contracting rabies after a dog bite. Image: Laurence Daigle

Polar foxes transmit rabies to dogs that breed in cities where indigenous communities were settled in the 1950s. The public is unaware of the risks they face, notes a study by veterinarians.

On January 10, 2023, in Resolute Bay in the Nunavut region of Canada, a dog tested positive for rabies by health services after being attacked by a polar fox. In northern Alberta, a suspected rabid dog attack killed a five year old child in an indigenous community, this tragic accident occurred the first weekend of March.

The risk of rabies infection in Canada’s indigenous communities is unexpectedly increasing as they use dogs less in their daily lives. Among the most urgent needs of these populations are awareness of the risks and learning how to detect a potential infection before the first symptoms appear. That’s according to a study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in late February.

Laurence Daigle and her associates, veterinarians in the southern regions of Canada, conducted an investigation in indigenous communities, where dogs are known to play a crucial role in daily life, for hunting, transportation and protection of families. However, from the 1950s onwards, the use of snowmobiles, among the socio-cultural changes they underwent, decreased their use. The Innu people who live beyond the 54th parallel north represent 48.4% of the inhabitants of this region.

Between 27% and 63% of residents report having been bitten by a dog in their lifetime, depending on the region. Forty percent of owners say their dogs have bitten them or a family member. The rabies virus is transmitted by polar foxes and vaccination of dogs is not mandatory. As a reminder, rabies is lethal in 100% of cases in humans from the onset of the first symptoms, according to the WHO. Since 1924, there have been only 25 rabies deaths in Canada.

The study took place around Matimekush-Lac John, Kawawachikamach and Schefferville in northern Quebec. Image: Laurence Daigle

In the populations consulted by the researchers, young adults are the most aware of the risks of this disease. However, nearly one third of Nunavik residents are not aware of any preventive measures to reduce the risk of being infected with rabies, or even of being diagnosed in time. According to the authors, this segment of the population would be more receptive to being more attentive to children when they are with dogs.

The stray dog, free to roam the communities, is nowadays well perceived. Some have no owners. The study shows that communities lack knowledge about the transmission of this disease. A significant proportion of those who are bitten do not seek local health services.

Indeed, if most bites are benign, it is better to consult to check for infection before the first symptoms. The analysis of the attacking dog provides the best evidence of the possible presence of rabies. In the first instance, it is advisable to avoid killing the animal to facilitate diagnosis.

A majority of survey respondents perceived that there were too many dogs in their community. They deplore the absence of a dog control officer.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to study: Daigle, L., Ravel, A., Rondenay, Y., Simon, A., Mokoush, K.N., Aenishaenslin, C., 2023. Knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding dogs and dog bites in Indigenous northern communities: A mixed methods study. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2023.1080152.

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