Outbreak of rabies among arctic foxes and reindeer on Svalbard archipelago, Norway

Illustrasjonsfoto: Colourbox.no

In addition, rabies was diagnosed in a polar fox in January 2011. All the diagnosed animals showed signs of abnormal behaviour, and both reindeer presented with neurological symptoms. At present, seven people have been administrated post-exposure prophylaxis. No human cases of rabies have ever been diagnosed in the area.

Rabies on Svalbard

Rabies is regarded as an endemic disease throughout most parts of the Arctic. The Arctic fox is the main host of the virus, and the same arctic virus variant seems to infect the Arctic fox throughout the area it inhabits. How rabies is maintained in the fox population remains largely unknown. On Svalbard, rabies was diagnosed for the first time in 1980 during an outbreak in the Arctic fox population. From 1980 to 1999, a total of 25 animals were diagnosed with rabies on the islands, including three reindeer and one ringed seal. No further cases had been reported until the diagnosed case in a polar fox in January 2011. Mainland Norway remains rabies-free.

Svalbard has a population of 2,700 with most living in the city of Longyearbyen. Approx 500 are Russian and Ukrainian citizens living in the mining community of Barentsburg.

Abnormal behaviour

Following consultation with the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, the Governor of Svalbard has urged the public to avoid contact with dead animals and any animals that are behaving abnormally. Polar foxes detected in the city of Longyearbyen will be caught and killed by the authorities. The Governor is regularly checking the surroundings of Longyearbyen by helicopter to look for animals exhibiting abnormal behaviour and cadavers. All dogs on the islands must be kept on a leash.

Post-exposure prophylaxis

People who have been bitten or have received cuts or scratches through contact with animals suspected to be infected with rabies should immediately receive post-exposure prophylaxis (vaccine and human rabies immunoglobulin). Post-exposure prophylaxis should also be considered for people who have been licked or bitten by a dog that in the two preceding days had been in contact with other animals suspected to be infected with rabies.

The hunting season for reindeer has just ended and around 250 reindeer have been killed. For routine animal population surveillance purposes, hunters have to separate the lower jaw from the animal cadavers and send it to the Governor. This procedure may involve exposure to saliva, brain tissue and the oral cavity of the animal. The Norwegian Institute of Public Health recommends that hunters and others who have been involved in this procedure should be offered post-exposure prophylaxis.

Monitoring the situation

Rabies vaccination is generally recommended to inhabitants and visitors to the Svalbard archipelago who may come in contact with wild animals. At present, no changes in the pre-exposure immunisation recommendations are planned. The inhabitants of the islands have been informed about the situation. The current rabies situation does not warrant any travel restrictions to the Svalbard islands. The Governor of Svalbard, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority and the Norwegian Institute o