Raccoon strain returns after decade’s absence as rabies outbreak confirmed in Ont.

DRESDEN, Ont. — After a decade’s absence, the raccoon strain of rabies is back in Ontario.

The province’s natural resources and forestry ministry has confirmed 91 cases, all within 12 kilometers of each other, in an area near Hamilton.

“We will likely never know for sure the origin of these new cases, but it is most likely a long-range translocation of a rabid raccoon from the U.S., on either a truck or train, is behind the cluster of cases in Ontario,” said Jolanta Kowalski, a media relations officer with the minister.

“Given the experience we have from Quebec, we should be able to eliminate rabies from the Hamilton area in three to five years. Rabies is a fatal wildlife virus that can be transmitted to humans and livestock so it is always a public health and agricultural concern.”

As well, two reports of fox strain rabies were confirmed north of Stratford.

Kowalski said the number of confirmed cases is expected to grow this year. However, the outbreaks are likely to be brought under control as the ministry steps up its vaccine bait program.

The number of confirmed rabies cases has been low in Ontario and across Canada in recent years, according to Canadian Food Inspection Agency data. No more than 28 Ontario cases have been confirmed in the previous five years.

Ontario used to be known as a rabies hot spot with 1,500 cases reported annually. That changed with the introduction of the Onrab vaccine program.

The program distributes vaccine-carrying bait in areas frequented by wildlife when cases are confirmed.

“The MNRF’s bait drop program is one of the most successful rabies elimination programs in North America,” Kowalski said.

“With the development of the Onrab vaccine, we now have the ability to use high density baiting to vaccinate 60 to 80 percent of the population that will prevent the spread of the disease.”

Ontario has been home to the fox and raccoon rabies strains, as well as several bat strains. The fox strain tends to be carried by skunks.

All types can affect people, pets and other animals through exposure to the saliva of infected animals, especially if a bite is involved.

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