Rabies detected in a Svalbard reindeer

The Norwegian Veterinary Institute has detected rabies in a Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) found close to Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.

On July 16th, the Governor of Svalbard received notification of a sick Svalbard reindeer close to Ny-Ålesund. The adult female was weak and could not get up. Hence, the sick animal and a calf were euthanised and samples sent to the Norwegian Veterinary Institute (NVI) for examinations. Diagnostic testing of brain samples at NVI confirmed that the female adult had rabies, while no rabies was detected in the calf.

"NVI detected rabies in a polar fox (Vulpes lagopus) on the island of Hopen in May 2018. Examination of the genetic relationship between the viruses shows that the rabies virus detected in the reindeer is in the same group as other arctic variants of rabies virus.  It is closely related to the virus detected in Hopen in 2011 and 2018 and close to Longyearbyen in 2011," says Knut Madslien, wildlife veterinarian at NVI.

Rabies has been detected occasionally in Svalbard, with outbreaks of the disease in 1980 and 2011. During the latest outbreak in 2011, rabies was detected in four polar foxes and ten Svalbard reindeer. Mainland Norway is declared free of rabies.

Polar foxes migrating on the ice-covered sea from Siberia, Canada or Greenland are likely to introduce rabies on the Svalbard archipelago at uneven intervals. Diseased foxes can further transmit the virus to other wild animals, such as Svalbard reindeer, usually via bites.

"The regular hunting season for Svalbard reindeer begins in mid-August, and there are many tourists and researchers in the archipelago during the summer months. If you observe foxes or reindeer that are dead, ill or display abnormal behavior, please contact the Governor of Svalbard immediately and do not handle them! Dogs must be kept under supervision and please, do not feed polar foxes. Remember, rabies is a serious, deadly viral disease that can infect humans," concludes Madslien.

Contact person at NVI:
Knut Madslien

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