Choppers dropping vaccine packets in Chattanooga area to immunize raccoons

Choppers dropping vaccine packets in Chattanooga area to immunize raccoons

October 23rd, 2013 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

FAST FACT

Raccoons are the most frequently reported rabid wildlife species (36.5 percent of all animal cases during 2010), followed by skunks (23.5 percent), bats (23.2 percent), foxes (7 percent), and other wild animals, including rodents (1.8 percent).

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Bait containing a vaccine is being spread from the air to help control rabies in raccoons.

Photo by Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto.com

Raccoon-variant rabies graph

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

ABOUT THE BAITS

• If you or your pet find bait, confine your pet and look for other baits in the area. Wear gloves or use a towel and toss baits into a wooded or fence-row area. These baits should be removed from where your pet could easily eat them. Eating these baits won't harm your pet, but consuming several baits might upset your pet's stomach.

• Don't try to remove an oral rabies vaccine packet from your pet's mouth, as you could be bitten.

• Wear gloves or use a towel when you pick up bait. While there is no harm in touching undamaged baits, they have a strong fish meal smell. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if there is any chance the vaccine packet has been ruptured.

• Instruct children to leave baits alone.

• A warning label on each bait advises people not to touch it and contains the rabies information line telephone number. To reach the Knoxville office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services call toll-free at 866-4US-DAWS.

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

They look like ketchup packets, smell like fish and are being dropped by the thousands on Chattanooga.

And raccoons love 'em.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services is using a helicopter to sprinkle raccoon-variant rabies vaccination packets from the air Monday and Tuesday in Hamilton and Bradley counties as part of its annual effort to thwart the viral disease's spread.

The federal agency has set out raccoon rabies vaccine bait here since 2003 from cars, trucks and small airplanes - but this is the first time it has used an agency helicopter that drops packets from about 500 feet overhead at 115 mph.

"With the helicopter, we expect to have a little more control," wildlife services biologist Erin Patrick said.

The vaccine packets are less likely to end up in residents' swimming pools and on their lawns, she said, and more likely to wind up in wooded areas near water, the kind of areas favored by raccoons.

The 24,500 packets due to be dropped from the sky onto Hamilton County are smeared with fish meal that raccoons find tasty; the 16,000 hand baits spread by wildlife services employees in cars or trucks are each encased in a block of fish meal.

The plastic packets squirt rabies vaccine into raccoons' mouths when the animals bite down on them. The packets aren't harmful to pets, officials say. However, parents are urged to keep kids away from them - though Patrick said a child has never eaten one to her knowledge.

"We've never had that happen," Patrick said. "They smell horrible, which is kind of a deterrent to humans."

Stemming the spread

Rabies is almost always fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Rabies is most common in wild animals in Tennessee, and it poses a risk to humans and domestic animals that come into contact with wildlife," said John Dunn, the state's deputy state epidemiologist.

Raccoon-variant rabies is a strain that's easily transmitted among raccoons. It's native to Florida, Patrick said, but showed up in the West Virginia area in the 1970s, most likely because someone transplanted sick Florida raccoons there. The disease exploded up and down the East Coast, she said, spreading at a rate of about 25 miles a year.

Even today, raccoon-variant rabies is confined to the East, but if nothing is done, raccoon rabies will be west of the Rockies in 50 years, Patrick said.

To stem the disease's westward spread, the federal agency drops about 6.5 million oral raccoon-variant rabies baits along a "vaccine barrier" line from Maine to Alabama - including in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

"Hamilton County has been a good example of how we like to see it work," she said.

The last case of raccoon rabies in Hamilton County was in 2008, Patrick said. Wildlife services started baiting in Hamilton County in 2003, Patrick said, when officials knew raccoon-variant rabies was headed this way. The number of Hamilton County raccoons with rabies peaked at 14 in 2004, she said, but then dropped to one case in 2005, none in 2006, and one each in 2007 and 2008.

"It's a significant decline," she said. "So we're pretty excited. We kind of think Hamilton County and Chattanooga are a good little poster child for how this should work."

No raccoon rabies cases have been reported in Tennessee this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

About 38,000 people are administered post-exposure rabies medicine annually, according to wildlife services, resulting in more than $150 million in health care costs. Preventing the spread of raccoon rabies in the western United States alone could reduce post-exposure rabies medicine costs by as much as $50 million annually, according to wildlife services. That's in addition to savings associated with reduced pet vaccinations, quarantine and euthanasia; surveillance and animal diagnostic tests; and livestock losses, the agency said.

Wildlife services employees started spreading rabies vaccine bait by hand here on Saturday and Sunday, then used the helicopter Monday and Tuesday.

The rabies baiting program had been scheduled to start here on Oct. 1, but was delayed by the federal government shutdown.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.