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State Reports First Case of Rabies in Interior Alaska

Fairbanks, AK - The state reported the first case of rabies in Alaska’s interior on Tuesday.  A wolf tested positive for the disease, but the discovery was accidental.  Until two years ago, the state didn’t survey for Interior Alaska for rabies.  But after an accidental discovery of the disease in a wolf last month, the state plans to increase their effort to track the disease in the Interior. 

Trappers have always faced a risk of exposure to rabies.  That risk became a reality when a wolf encountered a trapper in the southern foothills of the Brooks in March.  The trapper legally shot the wolf and transported it to the Mat-Su valley.  When he went to skin the animal, he cut himself.  “So, he contacted his health provider and they decided to have the wolf tested for rabies and it came up positive,” says Bob Gerlach .  He's Alaska’s State Veterinarian.  He says the disease has never before been reported south of the Brooks Range or as far east as Chandalar Lake.  “The state had normally done rabies testing and it was always associated with either a human exposure," he says, "or in a case where an unusual behavior of an animal came in close to a community and they would test the animal because it was a public health threat.   But the state had not until two years ago started to go ahead and do surveillance in the wildlife populations.”

The state uses a field test, called a Drit Test, to look for rabies in the field.  In the past two years, they’ve collected a thousand samples.  Last summer, the test helped them track down the first case of rabies in a wolverine near Umiat on the North Slope.  Most cases of rabies are found among arctic foxes that live along the western and northern coast of Alaska.  Three percent of red foxes trapped in the Bethel area last year tested positive for rabies.

Kimberlee Beckman is a veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.  She says cases of rabies in wolves are rare.  “It seems to me we have a case in a wolf about every year or two," she says.  "They don’t always make the news but usually they’ve attacked a hunter or a trapper or something like that.”

Last December, a hunter from Tok reported a strange encounter with a wolf off the Taylor Highway.  
“That wolf, the behavior was very abnormal and consistent with having rabies, but that wolf was never found and so couldn’t be tested for having rabies," she says.  "It’s possible that that animal was rabid.”  That’s why Beckman is calling on trappers in the Chandalar and Fortymile regions to provide Alaska Department Fish and Game with tissue samples from the heads of wolves, wolverines, foxes and coyotes.  “In that particular area, we’ve only tested about a dozen, so we haven’t had a lot in that area. All along the north slope and also any wolves that were killed as part of predator control, so we weren’t concentrating in that particular area.”

Fish and Game is also asking for samples from the Mat-Su region because the animal was transported there. But Bob Gerlach says it’s not time to start panicking about a rabies outbreak in Alaska.  “If there had been rabies in that area for a time period, but never been tested before, then you can say it’s the first case we’ve found in this area," he says.  "But it’s not like rabies is massively spreading.  We’re just saying we found a case in this area where we normally wouldn’t go ahead and expect to find it.”  The state will continue its surveillance program and expand a program that trains civilians to administer rabies vaccine to dogs, cats and other domestic animals in rural communities.