NEW ORLEANS — The United States Department of Agriculture has begun distributing millions of packs of oral rabies vaccine from helicopters and planes over 13 states from Maine to Alabama.
The main goal is to prevent raccoons from spreading their strain of the deadly virus to states where it has not been found or is not widespread, said field trial coordinator Jordona Kirby.
The USDA is also continuing to test a vaccine approved in Canada to immunize both skunks and raccoons, said Kirby of Wildlife Services, which is part of the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Rabies is spread 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 for having been bottle-fed or given medicine to a sick calf that was found to have rabies, said Dr. Michael Neault, the state veterinarian.
Worldwide, the virus kills 60,000 people a year, most of them bitten by dogs, the World Health Organization says.
That’s about the same number who get shots 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 spread by wildlife in the US
The National Rabies Control Program began in 1997 in Texas, where coyotes spread the canine variant of the virus, Kirby said.
She said vaccine drops eliminated that variant in 2004. Three years later, the CDC declared the country free of canine rabies.
That doesn’t mean unvaccinated pets are safe. Rabies in dogs is one of more than 20 varieties — seven found in terrestrial mammals and more than 13 in bat species, said Richard Chipman, the rabies control program coordinator.
A bite from an animal infected with a variant can sicken any other mammal. Scratches occasionally do, because animals lick their paws.
A three-year program in Arizona and New Mexico eliminated bat rabies in foxes, Kirby said. And Texas, with USDA help, dropped 1.1 million bait along the Mexican border in January to prevent coyotes from bringing back the canine variety.
Raccoons are the main reservoir of rabies in 18 states along and near the East Coast and skunks in 21 others, according to data from 2020, the latest available year.
Bats made up 31% of the nearly 4,500 animals found with rabies in 2020. But since nearly all of the more than 40 species of bats in the US eat insects and the rest drink nectar or eat fruit, oral vaccines would be much trickier.
Some scientists have speculated that bats could be vaccinated during hibernation, perhaps with a fine mist or with a gel that can 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 could spread such a vaccine within a colony by grooming each other.
Rabid wildlife isn’t just a nationwide problem. A rabid fox on Capitol Hill was captured less than 24 hours after it was first reported in April. By this time, about half a dozen people had reported bites or bites to the U.S. Capitol Police, but others may have gone to other agencies, a Capitol Police spokesperson said by email.
Started in August in parts of Northern Maine, Western Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, and Southwest Virginia. The 348,000 Raboral V-RG ace in Maine and 535,000 in the other three states are being dropped from aircraft in rural areas and from vehicles in urban and suburban areas.
In all, about 3.75 million packs — coated with a fishmeal attractant or encased in 1-inch (2.5 centimeters) fishmeal cubes — will be distributed in nine states, ending when 1.1 million packs are dropped in Alabama in October.
The vaccine has been found safe for more than 60 species of animals, including domestic dogs and cats. Eating a large number of vaccine packs can give dogs an upset stomach, but shouldn’t cause a lasting problem, APHIS says.
About 3.5 million doses of the experimental Onrab vaccine are being distributed in parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Tennessee — which also receive the approved vaccine — plus four other states.
Onrab comes in blister packs with a marshmallow flavored green coating. Wildlife Services hopes it can be approved next year, despite ongoing pandemic-related delays.
Associated Press climate and environmental awareness receives support from several private foundations. Read more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.