American health officials are preventing a rabies outbreak by dropping vaccines from planes as part of a half-billion-dollar federal program.
Over 9 million ketchup-sized pieces of food containing vaccines are being scattered across the eastern United States to suppress the deadly neurological virus in raccoons and prevent it from killing humans.
The packets come in two flavors tailored specifically to the trash-diving mammals – vanilla and fishmeal – but “packet thieves” who don’t need the rabies vaccine, such as gray squirrels and opossums, make off with a few bites.
The annual airdrop, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1997, has stopped the westward spread of rabies in the U.S. but now hopes to eradicate the disease from raccoons in the East.
The news comes amid warnings from scientists that rabies-infected vampire bats are reaching North America via Mexico as their habitats shift due to climate change.
Over 9 million ketchup-sized pieces of food containing vaccines are being scattered across the eastern United States to suppress the deadly neurological virus in raccoons and prevent it from killing humans. Officials have stopped the spread westward – but now want to eradicate it in the east
The USDA this year renewed testing of a newer vaccine with a new flavor to attract more raccoons: marshmallow with powdered sugar, vegetable oil and a dark green food coloring
“What we failed to do,” says Charles Rupprecht, former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rabies program. “That means eliminating it from every state that currently has raccoon rabies.”
The USDA this year renewed testing of a newer vaccine with a new flavor to attract more raccoons: marshmallow with powdered sugar, vegetable oil and a dark green food coloring.
“Our feelings are absolutely not hurt when skunks, foxes or coyotes pick them up.” And they do,” said wildlife biologist Jordona Kirby, field coordinator for the USDA’s National Rabies Management Program.
“Although raccoons are the reservoir and spread rabies, especially in the East,” Kirby said NPR“These other animals can get rabies, just like any mammal.”
Last year, researchers working with the The University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory found that at least “competition with opossums” did not deter raccoons from receiving their vaccine doses.
Researchers proposed two solutions to get more raccoons vaccinated, as published in this year the Journal of Wildlife Managementfocused less on the competition and more on the raccoons.
The first suggestion was to “alter the bait matrix to make it more attractive to raccoons,” which meant even more design and flavor experimentation.
Your second new suggestion: avoid the oral vaccine packs in the winter months when food is more scarce,to encourage bait acceptance by raccoons.
To date, USDA airdrops for oral vaccines have typically occurred between July and October.
Starting in July of last year, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) began the next phase of its marshmallow trials, which included aAbout 3.5 million of the new oral vaccine decoys, called ONRAB ORV, in parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
However, another area will be the focus of data collection for this field test.
Wildlife biologist Kathy Nelson, who directs the USDA’s National Rabies Management Program, said only 30 percent of raccoons in a region need to be vaccinated to stop the spread of the disease, and a rate of 60 percent could eliminate rabies throughout a region Eliminate area
“APHIS is conducting the final year of a small project in October in Chattanooga,” USDA officials announced, “to evaluate the effectiveness of ONRAB’s distribution methods.”
Wildlife biologists working for APHIS in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will trap and test a random sample of raccoons and skunks following this year’s bait distribution to track their vaccination rates.
In rural areas, low-flying aircraft are used to distribute these oral vaccines from the air. They are equipped with a conveyor belt on the plane to distribute the vaccines in an automated and even manner at about 75 baits per square kilometer (29 per square mile).
In truly remote areas where raccoons are less likely to live, including the spruce forests of northeastern Vermont, the USDA only drops about 37 baits per square kilometer (14 per square mile).
But in more urban areas, the USDA hopes to distribute up to 150 oral vaccines per square kilometer (58 per square mile), dropped by helicopter in the suburbs and dumped in the backs of delivery trucks in cities.
Bushes, sewer pipes under roads and bridges, and shopping center dumpsters are all prime locations.
“Any area that looks like raccoon habitat, we stop there,” said wildlife biologist Kathy Nelson, who oversees the USDA’s National Rabies Management Program Wired.
Nelson said the USDA estimates that only 30 percent of raccoons in a region would need to be vaccinated to stop the spread of the disease, and a 60 percent vaccination rate could eliminate rabies in an entire area.
She hopes new techniques can entice more animals to do this.
Rabies is a saliva-borne neurological virus that kills about 59,000 people worldwide each year, but only two to three deaths per year in the United States, thanks to the USDA’s multimillion-dollar program and other national efforts.
During the first half of the 20th century, most rabid animals in the United States were dogs, both pets and strays, until vaccination efforts against the disease in pooches in the 1950s and 1960s managed to bring those numbers down.
Today, raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats are the most common vectors, with the winged animals increasingly becoming the leading cause of rabies deaths in the United States.
As vaccine bait continues to decline, a statement The USDA advises: “People and pets cannot contract rabies from contact with the bait, but are asked to leave the bait alone if they encounter it.”
“An intact bait is harmless, but it is difficult to know whether vaccine has leaked from the bait at the bottom,” department officials said. “If bait comes into contact, the area of contact should be immediately rinsed with warm water and soap.”
“Each decoy carries a toll-free number that you can call if you have additional questions about a decoy contact.”