Fearing rabies, Nunavik woman complains about slow treatment of fox bite
Public health recommends rabies treatment within 48 hours after bite
A Nunavik woman wants to see the region’s health centres carry rabies vaccines at all times, after she was bitten by a fox and had to wait two days for treatment.
Nellie Aliqu was leaving a friend’s house in Quaqtaq last Saturday evening, May 5, with her infant in her amauti, when a fox ran up and bit her on the leg.
“Someone shouted: there’s something behind you!” Aliqu recounted. “But that little rat bit me hard.”
The 28-year-old woman said the fox tried to bite her again, but she swatted the animal away with a bag she was holding.
Aliqu said the fox was “acting weird” and “moving fast” and had a bloody face. After she scared the animal away, a loose dog attacked and killed the fox.
Aliqu’s husband called the on-call nurse and took her directly to the community health centre, where a nurse cleaned her wound and prescribed antibiotics for the bitten area.
But the health centre was out of the vaccine that is administered after someone is bitten by an animal. Aliqu said she was sent home and told the vaccine would arrive in Quaqtaq the following day, May 6.
When she called the clinic on Sunday, she was told she would only be able to receive the medication on Monday.
Aliqu said she felt weak and had a hard time walking on Sunday, the day after she was bitten. She slept for longer than usual that night and had her husband take her back to the clinic on Monday morning, May 7.
At that point, a different nurse told her she needed to receive the vaccination right away and arranged for Aliqu to get on the morning flight to Kuujjuaq.
“She said, you need to leave. You need to receive the shot right away,” Aliqu said.
She arrived in Kuujjuaq mid-day May 7 and received a series of vaccinations that same afternoon.
Aliqu said she’s feeling better, but she worries she was vaccinated too late and wants to be sent to Montreal for further testing. She flew home to Quaqtaq late May 8.
“I hope I’m OK,” Aliqu said. “It just worries me because I have four kids who are young, and a husband.”
In Nunavik, anyone who has been bitten by an animal suspected to be infected is given two shots right away: immune globulin and the first dose of a vaccine that must be repeated three more times over a two-week period.
Dr. Marie Rochette with Nunavik’s public health department said it’s recommended to receive that first treatment within 48 hours of a bite, though she wouldn’t comment specifically on Aliqu’s case.
“Sooner is better,” she said. “But it also depends on the site of the bite, and whether it was a wild or domestic animal.”
Bites on the head or neck are more serious because of the proximity to the brain, she noted.
Because of the vaccine’s expiration date, there are only two centres in Nunavik that keep that medication in stock at all times: Kuujjuaq and Puvirnituq.
“The request for these products is too small in these villages to ensure they’ll be used,” Rochette said.
Instead, community health centres order them when needed, she said, and it hasn’t been an issue—there have been no human cases of rabies in Nunavik in recent years.
Cases of rabies among animals are harder to track for Nunavik’s public health department, because the responsibility for that falls on Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture, which tests animal samples and compiles data for the region.
Rochette estimates there are only a handful of cases of rabies among animals each year in Nunavik, but she said it’s too early this year to say if that number is on the rise.
There’s been a noticeable increase in the fox population across Canada’s eastern Arctic, where a bump in the lemming population means foxes are having more offspring.
Even if cases of rabies are infrequent, Rochette cautions that every Nunavik community is at risk.
“Anyone who is bitten or scratched by an animal where it breaks the skin should consult their health care centre,” she said.
If you can’t see a health care professional right away, Rochette said the first thing anyone has been bitten can do is wash the bite area with soap and water for between 10 to 15 minutes.
That can remove the risk of infection by up to 90 per cent, she said.