There is an economics blog called "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative," supposedly named after a phrase that won a contest for "most boring possible headline." Today I ran across a real-life WCI, an amazing example of the strengths of the public health approach to problems so characteristic of my adopted country (as opposed to the moralistic approach elsewhere, but unfortunately now being imitated by the current federal government).
This WCI is likely going to be buried, but I am going to do my bit to spread the news, which I read in the Ottawa Citizen:
The number of rabies cases in Ontario's foxes, skunks, raccoons and livestock has just doubled. But paradoxically, this doubling is a minor blip.
Through most of 2011 there had been only a single rabies case in the entire province. As of last week, there are two. One new case was enough to double the total.
Two rabid animals, in the province that was once the rabies capital of North America, with thousands of confirmed cases a year.
One of the most stunning victories in the fight against infectious disease has been fought and won in Ontario, which had more than 3,000 cases of "terrestrial" rabies (meaning all animals except bats) in 1980.
Back then, Ontario had more rabies than all other provinces and U.S. states combined. The disease threatened children, hunters, livestock, and household pets.
For reasons never really understood, today's commonest strain of rabies crept south from Arctic foxes in the 1950s, spreading in animals' saliva along Hudson Bay to Ontario, where it stayed - not just in foxes, but commonly in skunks and raccoons too.
It's almost all gone now. And a strain called raccoon rabies, which spread north from Florida, has been completely wiped out in Ontario since 2005.
The strange story of how we rid the province of nearly all rabies is a combination of vaccine research, animal psychology, and the skill of bush pilots.
Here's what happened. Around 1980, someone had the bright idea of vaccinating wildlife against rabies. After all, it works in dogs and cats.
Obviously the problem was delivering the drug in the wild.
The solution was blindingly simple: Put oral vaccine in meatballs. A government airplane flies low with a pilot, navigator and bombardier, and they drop vaccine-laced bait onto the land below.
The bait also contains tetracycline, a common antibiotic that stains an animal's teeth brown. That reveals what proportion of wild animals are taking the bait.
Image: There's still need for progress on the bat front...