A government program to help stamp out raccoon rabies in the eastern United States will soon come to several Southwest Virginia counties.
The 20-year program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is aerially distributing oral rabies vaccine baits to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
Approximately 216,000 of the oral rabies vaccine baits will be dropped by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in select areas in Southwest Virginia beginning in October, according to Eric Wilhelm, a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services in Bristol.
Wilhelm, who is on board the aircraft during distributions, said that the program has already begun in portions of Bland and Giles counties.
While there are several strains of rabies throughout the country, the raccoon rabies variant is currently only found in the eastern United States, Wilhelm said.
According to the biologist, a vaccination zone has been established that stretches from Maine to Alabama, creating a barrier against the westward spread of raccoon rabies beyond the Appalachian Mountains and across the western United States.
“That vaccination zone comes through Southwest Virginia,” he said.
The baits are packaged in plastic sachets the size of a ketchup packet and are coated in fishmeal crumbs to attract raccoons. When the raccoon bites into the bait, the sachet ruptures and the animal swallows the vaccine. The animal’s immune system creates antibodies to fight the disease.
Other wildlife may eat the baits but will not become protected from the virus since the vaccine is formulated specifically for the raccoon variant.
Don’t panic if your dog eats a vaccine.
The Raboral V-RG vaccine is considered to be safe for many animals, including domestic dogs and cats, according to the USDA. Because the oral rabies vaccine is not a live virus, humans and pets cannot get rabies from coming into contact with the baits.
Dogs that consume large numbers of baits may experience an upset stomach, but there are no long-term health risks. If adults or children come in contact with baits, immediately rinse the contact area with warm water and soap.
Progress is being made
During the two decades of the program, the westward spread of the raccoon rabies has been stopped and progress is being made to eradicate the virus in the eastern United States, Wilhelm said. According to him, the goal of the program is to continue shifting the zone eastward until raccoon rabies has been eliminated all the way to the East Coast.
The oral rabies baits will be distributed across a 4,280-square-kilometer bait zone in Southwest Virginia, targeting a large population of raccoons.
“In Southwest Virginia, we typically see about 40 raccoons per square mile,” said Wilhelm. “We’ve had it as high as 70 raccoons per square mile. The sheer number of raccoons has made it harder to eradicate the virus.”
Areas in Virginia, Tennessee and the mountains of North Carolina will receive the baits by five fixed-wing aircraft. Two to three helicopters will be used in urban areas, such as Bristol and Abingdon, allowing low-level distributions of the vaccines.
“The baits will be distributed very precisely in urban areas along creek corridors and wooded lots,” he said.
Wilhelm explained that an interrupt switch on the aircraft prevents the baits from being released on houses, schools or other public facilities. “We can turn it off as we fly over those areas and just target the fields and wooded areas. The overall goal is to get out about 75 baits per square kilometer.”
According to him, in some parts of the country, the baits are distributed by hand. “We’ve found the helicopter is sufficient for what we do here in Southwest Virginia.”
A deadly concern
Each year approximately 60,000 people in the United States are exposed to the rabies virus and seek medical treatment at a cost of $600 million each year, according to APHIS.
Wilhelm believes those numbers point to an increasing numbers of wildlife that carry the disease.
As much as 90 percent of reported rabies cases in the country are in wildlife, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most common wild animals in the United States to carry rabies are bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. However, in many foreign countries rabid dogs are responsible for deaths in people.
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable viral disease that affects the central nervous system. A person or animal must have direct contact with the rabid animal to contract the virus, such as a bite, scratch, or contact with the saliva.
Wilhelm said the best course of action to prevent rabies is to vaccinate pets, have no contact with wildlife, and receive immediate attention after exposure to the virus before symptoms start. If left untreated, the virus is almost always fatal.
After ORV distributions are completed each year, wildlife biologists work to measure for success by trapping and testing live raccoons to determine vaccination rates. Results of tests reveal whether or not the animal ingested enough rabies vaccine to be protected.
For more information concerning rabies or the ORV program, visit https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/programs/nrmp or call 866-4-USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297).