Three deaths caused by rabies infections in Canada since 2000

A case of rabies was confirmed in Alberta by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency earlier this week.

“On January 14th of this year, a big brown bat was discovered in Calgary that was displaying neurological symptoms, and was sent for testing,” said Duane Landals, CEO of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association. “[The bat] tested positive for rabies.”

An update Thursday on the Falconridge Animal Hospital’s Facebook page said that the bat, found at a construction site in downtown Calgary, was submitted by the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society to the CFIA for inspection.

From there, the post said that the CFIA sent the bat to the Animal Disease Research Institute in Lethbridge for rabies testing.

Photo courtesy of Larry Meade / Flickr.com

This big brown bat was found in Virginia and is the same species as a rabid bat found in Calgary earlier this month.

The rabies virus is most commonly spread through saliva from an infected animal to an uninfected animal or human via bites or scratches. It affects the nervous system, causing severe inflammation and eventually death.

The virus is rare in Canada. Alberta has had only 12 out of the 1,165 confirmed cases in Canada between 2006 and 2012, according to the CFIA.

Rabies rates vary across the country due to different carrier animals. Animals such as foxes, skunks and raccoons are commonly infected with rabies and can be found throughout most of Canada, though they aren’t common in Alberta. 

The majority of confirmed cases in the province have been in bats.

Bats are rarely seen in Alberta in the winter, according to the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s website. Some migrate to southern locations, and the rest find safe places to hibernate. Bats go into torpor, a deep sleep, for five to seven months of the year.

Landals said that this case goes to show that bats aren’t only found in rural areas, and that “you are not necessarily safe from rabies in a big city, though this incident is something of a one-off.”

Two dozen people have died from rabies infections in Canada since 1924. Three deaths in three provinces have occurred since 2000, most recently in 2007. A 73-year-old man from central Alberta died in hospital after testing positive for rabies following a bat bite. Before that, a 52-year-old man in British Columbia died after becoming infected with a bat variant of rabies virus.

 Prior to that, the last death was a child in Quebec who died in 2000.

The Public Health Agency of Canada released a document in 2011 stating “Rabies is estimated to cause 55,000 worldwide human deaths per year, the vast majority of which are in Africa and Asia.”

If a human comes in contact with an animal that is suspected to be rabid and is bitten, post-exposure treatment, called PEP, should be initiated immediately. PEP consists of local treatment of the wound followed by vaccine therapy, according to the World Health Organization’s website. 

Rabies is a federal reportable disease, which means that a physician who has a patient with suspected or confirmed infection must contact the Medical Officer of Health to report it immediately.

“This is not a panic situation,” Landals said. “It’s a reminder that rabies is a constant low-level threat.”

amateri@cjournal.ca