A recent rabies scare in Toronto combined with an uptick in Ontario rabies cases over the past two years is making a lot of people nervous.
Although the risk to humans remains low, the fear is warranted, as a rabies infection in humans is a virtual death sentence within days of symptoms appearing.
The most recent scare took place earlier this month in the Scarborough area of Toronto after a man was chased down and bitten by a raccoon on the street.
Health officials have said the raccoon in this case was likely infected with a rabies-like disease known as distemper. Distemper is a highly contagious viral disease found among raccoons, but not transferable to humans.
While the animal is still undergoing testing to determine whether it had rabies, there has been a steady increase in rabies in Ontario over the past three years. In fact, rabies has been on the increase across Canada over the past two years.
The vast majority of cases were in Ontario, with 149 confirmed cases in animals during 2017. The next highest was Saskatchewan with 18.
The high number of cases in Ontario is likely due to the border it shares with New York State, which has had an ongoing rabies epidemic for years.
The most commonly infected animal in Ontario last year was the raccoon (86 cases), followed by the skunk (37) and the bat (20).
Ontario hadn’t had a single confirmed case of rabies in over a decade, until 2015 when it was found in Hamilton.
The effects of a rabies infection on a human being are truly horrific. Early symptoms can include a fever and tingling at the site of exposure, followed by violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, a sudden fear of water, the paralysis of parts of the body and confusion.
Once symptoms begin to show, the result is almost always death. There are only six reported cases worldwide of people ever having surviving rabies once they have begun to show symptoms.
It typically takes between one to three months for a person to begin showing signs of infection. However, that time period can vary from more than one year to under a week.
If humans can be administered a rabies immunoglobulin before their symptoms occur, the survival rate shoots up to nearly 100 percent.
There were 17,400 known deaths from rabies worldwide in 2015. More than 95 percent of those occurred in Africa and Asia.
Here in Canada, there have only been 25 confirmed cases of rabies in humans since 1925. The last fatal case occurred in Alberta in 2007.
To help stem the outbreak in Ontario, officials began airdropping stockpiles of bait laced with the rabies vaccine throughout the province.