USDA distributes rabies vaccines for wildlife in 13 states

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun distributing millions of packets of oral rabies vaccine from helicopters and planes to 13 states from Maine to Alabama.

The main goal is to prevent raccoons from spreading the strain of the deadly virus to states where it has not been found or is not widespread, said field testing coordinator Jordana Kirby.

The USDA is also continuing testing of a vaccine approved in Canada to immunize skunks as well as raccoons, said Kirby of Wildlife Services, which is part of the agriculture department’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service.

Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal, usually through bites. However, saliva that gets into the eyes, nose or mouth can also infect someone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thirteen people in South Carolina were considered potentially exposed in March because they bottle-fed or gave medication to a sick calf that tested positive for rabies, said Dr. Michael Nolt, the state veterinarian.

Globally, the virus kills 60,000 people a year, most from dog bites, the World Health Organization says.

That’s about the same number who receive vaccines to prevent rabies in the U.S. after being bitten or scratched by an infected or potentially infected animal, according to the CDC.

State and local pet vaccination laws mean the virus is primarily transmitted by wildlife in the US

The national rabies control program began in 1997 in Texas, where coyotes were spreading the canine variant of the virus, Kirby said.

He said vaccine drops eliminated that variant in 2004. Three years later, the CDC declared the country rabies-free.

This does not mean that unvaccinated pets are safe. Canine rabies is among more than 20 variants — seven found in land mammals and more than 13 in bat species, said rabies control program coordinator Richard Chipman.

A bite from an animal infected with either variant can sicken any other mammal. Scratches do this occasionally, since animals lick their paws.

A three-year program in Arizona and New Mexico eliminated a strain of bat rabies in foxes, Kirby said. And Texas, with help from the USDA, dropped 1.1 million baits along the Mexican border in January to prevent coyotes from reintroducing the canine variant.

Raccoons are the primary reservoir of rabies in 18 states along and near the East Coast, and raccoons in another 21, according to data from 2020, the latest year available.

Bats made up 31% of the nearly 4,500 animals found with rabies in 2020. But since nearly all of the 40-plus species of bats found in the U.S. eat insects and the rest drink nectar or eat fruit, oral vaccines would be much more difficult.

Some scientists have speculated that bats could be vaccinated during hibernation, perhaps with a fine mist or a gel that could be transferred from bat to bat, Chipman said. Early research is testing the idea in vampire bats, which live in Mexico and Central and South America and might spread such a vaccine in a colony by grooming each other.

Rampant wildlife isn’t just an agricultural problem. A rabid fox on Capitol Hill was caught less than 24 hours after it was first reported in April. By then, about half a dozen people had reported bites or stings to the U.S. Capitol Police, but others may have gone to other agencies, a Capitol Police spokesman said via email.

Raccoon rabies drives began in August in areas of northern Maine, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. The 348,000 Raboral V-RG baits in Maine and 535,000 in the other three states are dropped from airplanes in rural areas and from vehicles in urban and suburban areas.

In total, about 3.75 million packets — coated with a fishmeal attractant or encased in 1-inch (2.5cm) fishmeal cubes — will be distributed in nine states, ending when 1.1 million land in Alabama in October.

The vaccine has been found safe in more than 60 species of animals, including domestic dogs and cats. Consuming a large number of vaccine packets may cause stomach upset in dogs, but would not cause a permanent problem, APHIS says.

About 3.5 million doses of the experimental Onrab vaccine are being distributed in areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Tennessee — which also receive the approved vaccine — plus four other states.

Onrab is available in marshmallow-flavored green-coated blister packs. Wildlife Services hopes it can be approved next year, despite extended delays related to the pandemic.

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