Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Rabies outbreak in Arctic Norway - Hysteria or sensible management?

A menace to society!

Rabies is a viral decease that is common worldwide, except for in a very few countries in the world (eg. Norway, Sweden, UK, Australia, Japan, Iceland). It is also known as dog madness decease as the virus mainly spreads through saliva which gets transmitted when a dog or an other canine species bite another warm-blooded species. The virus goes into the neural system and eventually reach the brain in which it infects. Once reached the brain, the strong symptoms starts to show and the decease is virtually incurable. One of the symptoms is that the infected animal get aggressive for no apparent reason and might bite anything that comes close. About 55 000 people worldwide are killed every year due to rabies infection.

I was recently in Svalbard, where there have been a few cases of rabies in arctic foxes. We were at the harbour, and some of our crew saw a fox that was biting rubber tires of cars, and was very approachable. A woman bent down, stretched her arm out to feed it and got bitten. The fox was killed, and proved positive to rabies. This was the beginning of what is now known as a rabies outbreak in Svalbard. The Governour is now flying around the whole of the archipelago, and especially around the year round settlements, to find animals (foxes, reindeer and I guess polar bears) that behave in a strange way – if so – they shoot them. Arctic foxes in Svalbard has become extremely common and due to no hunting (only trapping in traditonally made traps) most of these are very tame and easy to approach. In fact, they often approach you to within a meter or so if you remain calm. How the Governour is asessing the behaviour and what is normal from not I don’t know. They already killed many foxes – and except the very first one - all of them proved perfectly healthy…..I think they have admitted some problems themselves with this since they decided that in and around Longyearbyen (the main settlement of about 2300 habitants) they will kill ALL foxes – sick or not.

The decease probably arrived to Svalbard via Arctic foxes migrating over the drift ice from Russia, Greenland or Arctic Canada. Due to this migratory pattern, and even though very rarely documented (last in January 2011, and before that in the 1980s), I think it is safe to say that rabies might always be present in Svalbard. Longyearbyen has a lot of people, dogs and not the least children, and I therefore understand there are some concerns. But given the slight chance to get infected, and the relatively easyness to treat the decease (when treated at early stage, there is a 100% recover) isn’t this yet another example of Norwegians absurd view on nature? The rest of the world is living with rabies present around them all the time, but they don’t go around killing every animal in nature. There are also other methods to prevent the decease to spread than killing – for instance has North America had great success with ”vaccinated” bait put out for raccoons. Once again, Norway show themselves as the hunting nation it is, and find the only way to manage nature is through hunting and killing.

There is a concensus in all the countries that have signed the Svalbard treaty, that Svalbard should remain as natural and pure as possible and the archipelago should be viewed as a reference area to how nature would look without human interference. To eradicate a totally natural decease like rabies is thus not obeying to this objective. The arctic fox is a very important top predator in the Arctic ecosystem, and the number of foxes present has large affects on population distribution in many sea bird species. Rabies is one of nature’s ways to reduce the arctic fox population. When our wildlife management starts to pick out pieces of nature, to select them away from the ecosystem we so desperately want to preserve - they virtually make the whole idea of Svalbard as a reference area for science and future look like a big illusion.

My advice is therefore not to go around like cowboys to kill foxes that shows perfectly normal behaviour, but to make people watch their dogs, vaccinate all dog owners that frequently get in touch with canine saliva (there are a lot sledge dogging activity in Longyearbyen) and to keep some vaccination stored in case of a rare incident of a fox biting a person should happen. 

The arctic fox is an important top predator in the Arctic eco-system



  1. Beautiful photos and documentation!!

  2. Thanks Sandra!

    It is sad to see that Norwgians and the rest of the western world is approaching a paranoid state of living. It is sad to see that nature is suffering because of tabloid press head lines, irrastional feelings and lack of basic knowledge about nature. Instead nature management should be rather based on scientific knowledge about biology and ecology for the different species involved.


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  4. I think you have misunderstood everything in this article. Rabies is a dangerous disease! It cannot be treated if you get infected. Lots of animals proved to be positive during this outbreak.

  5. Lots of animals is relative of course. Since the outbreak started about one year ago, with intensive search effort, they managed to find 10 reindeer and 5 Arctic foxes infected by rabies. I think, with the same search effort, you will be able to find rabies infected animals every year in Svalbard. Rabies is widely distributed all over the world, and very few countries dont have it. If treated at an early stage, the decease is 100% treatable - so I dont agree in it being a very dangerous infection, but only potentially so.