Aug. 29, 2022 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture is dropping nearly 4 million packets of oral rabies vaccines from helicopters, planes, and vehicles in 13 states, stretching from Alabama to Maine.
The goal is to prevent raccoons from spreading their strain of rabies to states where it hasn’t been found or isn’t widespread, according to The Associated Press. The USDA is also testing another vaccine, which is approved in Canada, to immunize skunks and raccoons.
Raccoons are the main rabies reservoir in 18 states – meaning the disease naturally lives and reproduces among these mammals – along and near the East Coast, and skunks are the main reservoir in 21 other states. In addition, bats made up 31% of the nearly 4,500 animals found with rabies in 2020, the AP reported.
The raccoon rabies vaccine campaign started in August in parts of northern Maine, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia. The campaign will end in October when about 1 million vaccines are distributed in Alabama. The oral packets, coated with fishmeal to attract wildlife, are being dropped from planes in rural areas and from vehicles in urban and suburban areas.
In March, 13 people in South Carolina were considered potentially exposed after bottle-feeding or giving medicine to a sick calf that turned out to have rabies, the AP reported.
Last year, five people in the U.S. died from rabies, which was the largest number since 2011, according to the CDC. Four of the deaths stemmed from contact with bats, and one person was bitten by a dog while traveling in the Philippines before returning to the U.S. Some of the people who had contact with bats didn’t realize they had been bitten and infected, and others refused vaccines.
Rabies is caused by a virus that invades the central nervous system and is typically fatal once symptoms start. The virus spreads through an infected animal’s saliva, usually through bites. That said, humans can also become infected if saliva gets into the eyes, nose, or mouth, the CDC says.
Most U.S. infections in recent years have been traced to bat encounters, typically related to catching bats in or around homes. Bat bites don’t always cause a visible mark, the CDC said, and bats can still spread rabies through infected saliva. Any direct contact with a bat should be checked out by a doctor, particularly if someone picks up a bat with bare hands.
About 60,000 people die from rabies worldwide each year, mostly through dog bites, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO has set a “Zero by 2030” goal to end human deaths from dog-related rabies by vaccinating dogs against the virus.
About 60,000 Americans get vaccinated each year after being bitten or scratched by an infected or possibly infected animal, the CDC says. Infections can cause anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, insomnia, paralysis, salivating, a hard time swallowing, and fear of water.
Symptoms can appear from 3 weeks to 3 months after exposure, and once symptoms begin, rabies is nearly always fatal, the CDC says.
Death can occur a few weeks after symptoms begin, but death can be prevented through a series of five shots given within 2 weeks of exposure.