Ra­bies is still here, and still a threat

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Barry Gray

Hamil­ton has a ra­bies prob­lem.

The re­cent con­fir­ma­tion of a se­cond feral cat in the area with ra­bies should raise con­cerns, for a cou­ple of im­por­tant rea­sons.

First, we have an abun­dance of stray fe­lines wan­der­ing this city; some es­ti­mates put the num­ber at well over 100,000. To put that in per­spec­tive, you could fill Tim Hor­tons Field, home of the Tiger-Cats, four times over with home­less tab­bies. And stray cats, un­like the mangy crit­ters that we tend to as­so­ciate with the dis­ease, may ap­pear to be as cute and ap­proach­able as the pets sun­ning them­selves in your front win­dow. This leads to in­creased chances of contact be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals.

Se­cond, ra­bies, if left un­treated, is al­most al­ways fa­tal in hu­mans.

It’s easy to be­come com­pla­cent about dis­eases that have been around for gen­er­a­tions and have seem­ingly been all but erad­i­cated. Af­ter all, we vac­ci­nate our pets against ra­bies; surely it must have gone the way of plague and po­lio by now, right?

Sadly, it con­tin­ues to be a prob­lem. Af­ter a spike in cases of rac­coon ra­bies be­tween 1999 and 2005, there were no re­ported cases for sev­eral years. In 2015, that num­ber sud­denly spiked to 24 cases. In 2016, an alarm­ing 288 con­firmed cases of ra­bies were cited, which led to ae­rial bait­ing pro­grams to try to slow this lat­est out­break. More con­cern­ing is that this time, Hamil­ton and the sur­round­ing area ap­pear to be at the cen­tre of the out­break.

Ra­bid an­i­mals of­ten ap­pear unco-or­di­nated, list­less or par­tially par­a­lyzed. Some will foam at the mouth. De­pend­ing how ad­vanced the virus is, they may seem overly ag­gres­sive and manic, prone to bite or growl.

Ra­bies is spread through saliva, not blood or fe­ces. Hu­mans are most at risk if bit­ten; but any contact with a wild an­i­mal should end with a visit to a med­i­cal pro­fes­sional. It’s also worth­while to note that they no longer give shots for ra­bies in the stom­ach. That prac­tice ended years ago. To­day, it’s a series of shots in the up­per arm that may ul­ti­mately save your life.

In an ur­ban land­scape, it’s com­mon to see rac­coons wan­der­ing about, or bats wing­ing over­head at dusk. We have lit­tle choice but to share our city space with them, de­spite be­ing the two species that ac­count for the ma­jor­ity of ra­bies cases.

We shouldn’t panic. Vig­i­lance re­mains the best de­fence. Get your pets vac­ci­nated, and keep an eye on them when you let them out­side.

Given our wild an­i­mal pop­u­la­tion, our mix of green space and ur­ban space clash­ing, it’s not hard to see how ra­bies could spread from species to species, in­clud­ing stray cats. Dur­ing this cur­rent out­break, we should give all of them — not just skunks — a wide berth.

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