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POSTED AT 8:37 AM EDT Friday, May. 28, 2004

Debbie Lawes

Globe and Mail Update

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While hospitals and governments struggle to provide front-line medical care and combat serious health threats such as SARS and West Nile, one Ontario government department is spending millions of dollars to battle a disease that ranks near the bottom of human health risks: rabies.

You need only say the word ”rabies” to elicit fear. And when the government warns about the dangers of this life-threatening disease, people tend to listen, and to believe.

A reality check is necessary here, both in terms of the minimal threat to humans and the excessive cost of battling the disease.

North America's largest rabies program can be found in Ontario, where, according to documents obtained through Access to Information, approximately $6-million is spent annually by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to control and eradicate the disease from our wildlife populations.

This is triple the $2-million the ministry publicly claims to spends on rabies, and it does not include millions more spent on research and testing healthy wildlife.

The question that few dare to ask: ”Is this money well spent?”

The answer is no, particularly when it comes to the ministry's controversial raccoon rabies program.

Before examining the economic rationale, let's start with a reality check on this well-known, yet little-understood disease.

From a public-health perspective, rabies ranks near the bottom of the list of threats. Raccoon rabies has been responsible for only one human death in the 50 years since the disease was discovered, despite thousands of animals that tested positive for rabies in densely populated areas of the United States.

To put the risk of rabies in perspective, 46 people die annually from bee or wasp stings.

Despite these facts, Ontario continues to use the most-expensive and controversial approach to raccoon rabies control. It includes three components.

One is aerial drops of vaccine-laced baits, which have proved highly effective across North America in vaccinating rabies vector species (raccoons, skunks and foxes). This approach not only works, it is also fiscally responsible, costing approximately $200 per square kilometre.

Oral baiting has become the standard throughout North America for controlling raccoon rabies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States points to Ohio as the model to follow. The state has virtually eradicated raccoon rabies in three years using this approach, and for a fraction of what Ontario has spent over the past decade.

In contrast, Ontario has the unfortunate distinction of being the only jurisdiction in North America to use what is referred to in bureaucratese as the Point Infection Control (PIC) program. It's a program that costs Ontario taxpayers dearly at a time of severe budget deficits and spiralling health costs.

The PIC program uses a controversial and scientifically unproved practice of trapping and killing all vector species within five kilometres of a positive case – a practice known as ”depopulation.”

These animals are killed and tested, despite having had no contact with humans. Between five and 10 kilometres of a positive case, the ministry traps, vaccinates and releases vector species. Aerial baiting is used beyond this range.

The PIC program is highly labour intensive, involving dozens of trappers who must capture and kill, or capture and vaccinate each animal. Ontario taxpayers pay as much as $1,500 per square kilometre for the program, which includes the cost of sending a brain-tissue sample from every animal killed to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa for testing.

The results of these tests are revealing. Documents obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin through Access to Information reveal that of the more than 9,700 animals killed over the past four years in Eastern Ontario, 99 per cent were found to be healthy.

These numbers do not take into account the thousands of orphaned young that have been left to starve when their mothers were ”depopulated.”

Residents in Eastern Ontario who have come across these offspring refer to the raccoon rabies-control measures as the ministry's ”scorched-earth program.”

So why does Ontario continue to stand alone in its approach to rabies control? A provincial audit and independent assessment of the PIC program would be the first step to finding those answers.

In response to these issues, wildlife rehabilitators in Ontario have partnered with environmental and animal-welfare interests to form the Ontario Wildlife Coalition. The coalition's first priorities are to bring an end to both the ministry's Draconian policies governing wildlife rehabilitation and the unnecessary slaughter of thousands of healthy wild animals in the name of rabies control.

Immediately before last October's Ontario election, 11 Liberal candidates from Eastern Ontario, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, pledged in writing to review the Natural Resources controversy. It is now time for the government to act on this commitment.

If the Liberals are serious about getting their financial house in order, they can start with a serious review of the PIC program at the ministry. Elected officials have a responsibility to ensure that scarce funds are not diverted to low-priority issues such as raccoon rabies.

Debbie Lawes is a board member of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre and a founding member of the Ontario Wildlife Coalition.

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