CHARLESTON. W.Va. — Over the next several weeks, West Virginians will likely see small planes flying low in a back and forth pattern over the state’s higher elevations. The aircraft will be on a mission to distribute small baits which are aimed at helping to vaccinate wildlife, specifically raccoons, against rabies for another year.
“The baits are dropped from airplanes and they’re quite small. They’re white, soft plastic envelopes which have a vaccine inside. The outside has wax and a smelly fish meal which is an attractant for a raccoon,” said Dr. Joanne Maki with Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health.
Her company produces the vaccine product Raboral V-RG. The tiny packets are distributed along the Appalachian Mountains from New York into Georgia trying to form a barrier to keep rabies isolated to the eastern United States. The program, run by the USDA’s Wildlife Services Program, has been in existence for more than 30 years and has successfully kept the virus in check.
“You know rabies prevention is working when you don’t have large outbreaks of rabies. This program has done a fantastic job on three different fronts,” Maki said in a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors.
“Raccoon rabies tends to be in the eastern United States, but there are raccoons all across the U.S. When there were outbreaks in the east coast, this product was applied in the Appalachian Mountains and West Virginia is key in creating a barrier with the mountains and the vaccine preventing rabies from going into the mid-west,” Maki explained.
Through annual distribution of the vaccine baits, the program has successfully created the barrier. Maki said the program has also been well worth the cost because of the reduced risk of human exposure. Public heath risk is a major consideration to justify the program.
The third success for the program is the education of the public about the threat of rabies. Maki says an attempt at all out eradication is not a reasonable expectation because of all of the variations and mutations rabies can take on and the variety of animal species which can be carriers.
“The idea of getting rid of rabies completely is not really possible, but what we can do is create geographic areas where the risk of rabies is minimized,” she said.
It’s unlikely you’ll run across one of the baits, unless you spend a lot of time in the deep woods of West Virginia. They’re dropped in remote areas from the plane and in places where there is population concentration or buildings, the packets are tossed from pickup trucks into a ditch along rural roads. Although you may not find them, your pets or your hunting dogs just might.
“Cats are interesting in that they very rarely eat the bait. They play with it and walk away. The others which are attracted to it are dogs. This product has been evaluated in dogs and it is safe,” she said.
In fact, there is a long list of species which have been tested and are considered safe if they consume the product. Maki cautioned however it would be wise to keep pets or hunting dogs on a leash since if they find and eat one, they’ll like find and eat several.
“The product is safe, but the fish meal and the wax on the outside might give them a stomach ache,” she said.
The U.S.D.A. program has a window of time of several weeks in late August and early September to distribute the vaccine along the mountains of West Virginia.