06/13/2014 04:53 EDT | Updated 08/13/2014 05:59 EDT

N.B. children treated after possible exposure to rabies; risk thought to be low

TORONTO - Two children in southern New Brunswick are receiving preventative treatment for rabies after their family's dogs had contact with a rabid raccoon, the province's chief medical officer of health said Friday.

The children are reported to have shared Popsicles with the dogs after the dogs spent some time chasing the raccoon around the backyard of the family home in St. Stephen, a southwestern New Brunswick town on the border with Maine.

Dr. Eilish Cleary would not confirm that the children had shared Popsicles with the dogs, saying she didn't know that level of detail about the case and probably wouldn't have shared it if she did. But she said it was felt there was some risk — albeit small — that the children might have been exposed to the highly lethal virus, so the decision was made to vaccinate them.

"The risk would have been low.... (But) because we know that the raccoon was rabid, it was definitely worth vaccinating," Cleary said in an interview from Fredericton.

The unidentified family arrived home on the evening of May 29 to find their two dogs racing around in the backyard, circling what turned out to be a raccoon, which was behaving oddly.

A report of the event posted on the website — and later picked up and circulated by ProMed, an online disease monitoring system — said the animal was killed and buried. While full details on when and why were not immediately available, the raccoon was later dug up and its brain extracted by the New Brunswick Provincial Veterinary Laboratory.

The provincial lab sent the brain to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's rabies laboratory in Ottawa. Testing there confirmed on June 2 that the raccoon had rabies.

The website report, which cites information provided by Dr. Jim Goltz of the provincial veterinary laboratory, says that was not known if the dogs had made contact with the raccoon. But if they had been bitten or scratched, the dogs would likely have licked their wounds.

Rabies, which is almost always lethal to people, is passed via virus-laced saliva. Both dogs had been vaccinated against rabies, but one was overdue for a booster shot. After the incident, both were given booster vaccines and put into quarantine for observation. A family cat, which had never been vaccinated, was also given rabies vaccine and placed in quarantine.

Cleary said the children were started on post-exposure rabies treatment, which involves a series of shots given over several weeks. The treatment consists of rabies vaccine plus human rabies immune globulin — anti-rabies antibodies taken from the blood of immunized people.

This therapy is highly successful at preventing infection when given early after exposure. That's because rabies has a long incubation period, averaging between three and eight weeks, according to information posted on the Public Health Agency of Canada's website.

"That treatment has been successful. So successful, in fact, that we ... very, very rarely see human rabies cases. It's almost unheard of," Cleary said.

There have only been three domestically acquired cases of rabies reported in Canada this century, in Quebec in 2000, British Columbia in 2003 and Alberta in 2007. Ontario also diagnosed a case of rabies in 2012, but the man had been living and working in the Dominican Republic and was infected there.

In fact over the past 90 years, only 24 Canadians are known to have died from rabies.

Cleary suggested this situation can serve as a reminder to pet owners and people who come in contact with wild animals.

"I think the most important thing is for people to get their pets vaccinated," she said.

"And then yes, around wild animals, we say they should be enjoyed from a distance. We want people to be out and seeing animals and be active, encountering nature. But respect them at a distance. Don't pick up wildlife."