Brucellosis is affecting western Nunavut’s caribou, muskox: researcher

Key for hunters is to avoid contamination and infection

Under the microscope, the bacteria that causes brucellosis is colourful, but in infected animals and people the symptoms are not so pretty. (Photo courtesy of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control)

By Jane George

CAMBRIDGE BAY—The health of caribou and muskox in western Nunavut is increasingly at risk from a disease called brucellosis, which can spread to people.

That’s why Susan Kutz from the University of Calgary’s faculty of Veterinary Medicine came to the Kitikmeot Regional Wildlife Board annual general meeting last week in Cambridge Bay.

Kutz was there to provide the board members with updates on the health monitoring of caribou and muskox and to offer information on how to avoid infection with the brucella bacteria, which makes infected animals and people sick.

What brucellosis, which can affect people, caribou and muskox, looks like, as seen in this slide shown at last week’s annual general meeting of the Kitikmeot Regional Wildlife Board. (Photo by Jane George)

Never cut into anything that looks abnormal, such as a large cyst on a leg, Kutz said, showing slides of deformities on animals.

Some infected caribou may appear healthy and not show any signs of brucellosis, Kutz said, but most animals with brucellosis display signs like swollen leg joints causing limping or lameness, especially in the front legs.

When butchering an infected animal, hunters may also find pus-filled swellings under the skin, in the meat or in the internal organs, and the testicles or uterus may be swollen.

“The biggest danger is when people cut into lumps and people get contamination on their knives,” she said. “So the big thing is to never cut into legs with those lumps.”

This is to avoid infection with brucellosis: the bacteria can enter through cuts or scratches in the skin or through the eyes, nose or mouth.

You can also get brucellosis by eating infected meat that has not been fully cooked. In people, brucellosis leads to intermittent high fevers and other symptoms such as fatigue.

Ten cases were reported in Nunavut from 2007 to 2014, a report on communicable diseases in the territory shows.

The Government of Nunavut has also posted a detailed information sheet on brucellosis online since 2015.

About 6.6 per cent of muskox also appear to be infected with brucellosis, with hunters reporting pus in the abdomen and abscesses in the bones of some infected animals, Kutz said.

As well, many muskox are affected by lungworms, which can’t be passed on to people, but can weaken the animals.

Although only briefly referred to at the AGM, muskox are also susceptible to cases of Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, a bacterial infection, which has spread to Victoria Island from Banks Island.

The bacteria is usually found in livestock, such as pigs or turkeys.

In people, contact with the bacteria can cause rashes, skin lesions and even blood poisoning, the infection is not treated with antibiotics.

As a way of learning more about the health of muskox, researchers are now examining qiviut, the soft under hair of muskox, to look at what trace minerals are present, Kutz said.

“We can learn to read qiviut and use it as a record of the past year of the animal,” she said.

The numbers of muskox around Victoria Island are down from an estimated 30,000 to about 10,000 on the Nunavut portion, with none seen close to Cambridge Bay, according to a 2014 Government of Nunavut survey.

This slide, shown at the AGM of the Kitikmeot Regional Wildlife Board, shows how an increasing number of muskox are now infected with brucellosis. (Photo by Jane George)

Many muskox in western Nunavut are now found in the remote mainland areas of the Kitikmeot region, where there are roughly 6,700 animals and on the Boothia Peninsula where there are about 3,600, the GN said in a report presented to the wildlife board.

Caribou numbers are not doing well overall in the Kitikmeot: the Bluenose East caribou herd continues to decline, the Bathurst caribou herd has shown “no sign of recovery” and the Dolphin and Union caribou herd has undergone a “continued significant decline,” the GN said.

Kurtz said future research will look at why some muskox populations are declining and others increasing, whether insects play a role in bringing in and spreading parasites, and what traditional knowledge can suggest to restore the Dolphin and Union herd to better health.

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(2) Comments:

  1. Posted by Copperinuk on

    Brucellosis has been around for years, I’ve been hunting for 30 years and this is nothing new new, I’ve seen it on dolphin union caribou as well as mainland caribou around kugluktuk. Education has always been there through TK (IQ), so this is old news. Just don’t touch the animal when you see swollen joints, avoid contact totally. That’s what I was taught through TK.

  2. Posted by Jim Excite on

    I wonder with all the declining caribou numbers across the north has anything to do with Space Bay hunters going into those areas and harvesting the caribou then selling in on FB? I wonder…..wish captain Kirk can turn back time.

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