USDA distributes rabies vaccines for wildlife in 13 states

By JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The US Department of Agriculture began dispersing millions of packets of oral rabies vaccine from helicopters and planes in 13 states since Maine a Alabama.

The main goal is to prevent raccoons from spreading their strain of the deadly virus to states where it hasn’t been found or isn’t widespread, field trials coordinator Jordona Kirby said.

The USDA is also continuing testing of 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 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.

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thirteen people in South Carolina were considered potentially exposed in March because they had bottle-fed or given medication to a sick calf that turned out to have rabies, said Dr. Michael Neault, the state veterinarian.

Globally, the virus kills 60,000 people a year, the majority bitten by dogs, says the World Health Organization.

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

State and local pet vaccination laws mean the virus is spread primarily through wildlife in the US.

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

She said vaccine drops eliminated that variant in 2004. Three years later, the CDC declared the nation free of canine rabies.

That doesn’t mean unvaccinated pets are safe. Canine rabies is among more than 20 variants: seven are found in terrestrial mammals and more than 13 in bat species, said rabies control program coordinator Richard Chipman.

A bite from an animal infected with any variant can make any other mammal sick. Scratches occasionally do, as the animals lick their paws.

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

Raccoons are the main reservoir of rabies in 18 states along and near the East Coast and skunks in 21 others, based on 2020 data, 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 more than 40 species of bats found in the US eat insects and the rest drink nectar or eat fruit, bats oral vaccines would be much more complicated.

Some scientists have speculated that bats could be vaccinated during hibernation, perhaps with a fine mist or with a gel that could be transferred from one bat to another, 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 preening each other.

Rabid wildlife is not just a rural problem. A rabid fox on Capitol Hill was captured less than 24 hours after the first report in April. By then, about half a dozen people had reported bites or bites to the US Capitol Police, but others may have gone to other agencies, a Capitol Police spokesman said by email.

Raccoon rabies campaigns began in August in parts of northern Maine, west PennsylvaniaWest Virginia and southwestern Virginia. The 348,000 Raboral V-RG baits in Maine and 535,000 in the other three states are dropped from aircraft in rural areas and from vehicles in urban and suburban areas.

In all, about 3.75 million packages, coated with a fishmeal attractant or encased in 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) cubes of fishmeal, will be distributed in nine states, ending when dropped. 1.1 million in Alabama in October.

The vaccine has been found to be safe for more than 60 types of animals, including domestic dogs and cats. Eating a large number of vaccine packets could cause dogs an upset stomach, but would not cause any permanent problems, APHIS says.

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

Onrab comes in blister packs with a green, marshmallow-flavored coating. Wildlife Services expects it to be approved next year despite lengthy delays related to the pandemic.

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