What's the long-term plan for the raccoon rabies scare in Hamilton?

Two more cases of raccoon rabies were confirmed Feb. 10, bringing Hamilton’s total to 35, and with more cases expected to be discovered in the future, what’s the province’s long-term plan of action for the outbreak?

Province taking a wait-and-see approach

No plan of action yet, says the province, but spring temperatures could change that. (Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control)

Two more cases of raccoon rabies were confirmed Feb. 10, bringing Hamilton's total to 35, and with more cases expected to be discovered in the future, what's the province's long-term plan of action for the outbreak?

There isn't one, at least not over the winter, says the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's (MNRF) head of wildlife research Chris Davies. The current focus is on continued monitoring. Spring, and what happens then, will be the real determinant of any new plans.

Baiting finished back in December when raccoons typically lose their appetite and, thus, would not be going for the baits.

For now, the province will be keeping surveillance of the 50 km radiuses around the discoveries, including the most recent two found in Glanbrook and Lower East Hamilton.

Define: surveillance

Surveillance in these areas involves the province working with a network of partners – Hamilton Health and other cities' health units, animal control, trappers, First Nations and Humane societies, to name a few – who contact the MNRF when they are made aware of strange-acting raccoons.

The MNRF co-ordinates with its surveillance partners to determine where the samples will be sent. For example, the city's health unit discovered the first case of raccoon rabies in Hamilton during this scare. It was reported to the MNRF, who asked for samples sent to their lab in Trent, said Davies.

Depending on the type of discovery – whether the raccoon had contact with animals and livestock, whether it had contact with people etc. – will determine where samples are sent. Some are sent to Trent, others are sent to Ottawa, or a lab in Guelph.

Davies said there's a big misconception when it comes to "sick" versus "rabid" raccoons.

"Those numbers got all screwed up years ago," he said about people's increasing fears of raccoons.

The real numbers

As of Friday. Feb 5, the MNRF had screened 520 submitted samples from its surveillance partners, and 33 of those cases tested positive for rabies. That might lead some to believe that six per cent of all raccoons have rabies, but it's actually much lower than that, Davies said.

The 520 samples are from raccoons that are acting weird, either from rabies or diseases that have similar symptoms to rabies such as distemper. Of those samples, six per cent tested positive for raccoon rabies.

The percentage of rabies found in all raccoons, however, would be much lower than that, said Davies.

But that fact became muddled in the previous rabies scare from 1999 to 2005. The media made the same mistake of assuming the samples represented the entire raccoon population, Davies said.

"This is how things get blown out of proportion."

Then vs. now

Davies also looks back at the last rabies scare, and he says this go-around is far less stressful.

"It's a different world," he said.

Technologies have improved in the decade since the last scare, and the MNRF can now screen raccoon samples at a much faster rate. It's replaced "the more sledgehammer approaches," the province had to take back in 1999, said Davies.

Even with the technological advancements, there is some delay between the finding and reporting of odd-behaving raccoons and the eventual confirmation and reporting of positive cases of raccoon rabies.

When the city of Hamilton's page says "February 10, 2016" as the date for the most recent confirmation, that's actually when the info was entered into the city's site. The raccoon may have been discovered months before, and in fact, Davies said most of the cases were actually found between December and January.

The site also gives the general areas of the discovery, but doesn't go into specifics. Those locations listed on the site, however, are as specific as the MNRF and the city of Hamilton are going to get.

"We do not provide specific locations due to privacy concerns," he said.

Though there's not a plan in place for right now, new discoveries during surveillance could have an impact on future. How soon spring — or at least spring-like condition — arrives will be the other factor.

The Ministry of Natural Resources has dropped about 220,000 raccoon baits in the area in a bid to quash an outbreak of raccoon rabies in the Hamilton area. (Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press)

The province is planning to do more baiting when spring temperatures arrive and raccoons leave their dens with hungry stomachs, said Davies.

Up until this week, those spring temperatures in Hamilton seemed like they were already here, but mother nature quickly dismissed those thoughts Wednesday night.

So for now, the raccoon baiting plan for the next few months remains simple: wait and see.