U.S. Department of Agriculture Scattering Millions of Rabies Vaccine Packets From Helicopters, Planes

by Chris Haney

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began an initiative to scatter millions of packets of oral rabies vaccines across the East Coast. Officials are using helicopters and planes to drop the vaccines across 13 states ranging from Alabama to Maine.

In an Associated Press report about the initiative, USDA field trial coordinator Jordona Kirby explained that they’re mainly targeting raccoons. The department is attempting to stop raccoons from spreading the strain of rabies, which can be a deadly virus to all mammals, including humans. The department hopes to contain the virus with the rabies vaccine so it doesn’t reach states where it isn’t widespread yet.

Additionally, the USDA has continued testing a rabies vaccine that is already approved in Canada. The new vaccine is primarily used in Canada to immunize skunks and raccoons.

Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system of all mammals. As symptoms progress, rabies is often fatal to both wild animals and humans. The virus is contracted through an infected animal’s saliva, typically through bites. Yet an infected animal’s saliva can also spread rabies if it comes into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Rabies is most often spread by wildlife in the U.S. since we have state and local pet rabies vaccine laws. However, across the globe, rabies kills around 60,000 people per year who are mostly bitten by infected dogs. Around the same number of people end up getting a rabies vaccine after getting bitten or scratched.

One outlier of the virus includes an outbreak in South Carolina earlier this year. 13 people were deemed potentially exposed after bottle-feeding or administering medicine to a sick calf that had rabies.

Not the First Time Officials Have Dropped Rabies Vaccines to Stop the Spread of the Virus

In 1997, the national rabies control program was created in Texas. At the time, coyotes were spreading the canine variant of rabies throughout the state. Kirby shared with the outlet that rabies vaccine drops helped eliminate the variant seven years later. By 2007, the CDC declared the U.S. free of canine rabies.

Unfortunately, unvaccinated pets are still at risk since canine rabies is among 20 variants of the virus. In fact, seven are found in terrestrial mammals. The other 13 are within various species of bats. Recently in Arizona and New Mexico, officials began a three-year program to eliminate bat rabies in foxes, according to Kirby. In January, Texas also scattered 1.1 million baits along the Mexican border to keep canine rabies from coming back into the coyote population.

Yet raccoons are still the main rabies carriers across 18 states on and near the East Coast. Skunks are also a concern in 21 states, according to the latest data available from 2020.

In August, USDA officials began to drop the rabies vaccine in northern Maine, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia. In total, they plan on scattering 3.75 million packets across states with confirmed cases. The vaccine packets are either coated with a fishmeal attractant or encased in fish meal cubes. They’ll end the vaccine drops in Alabama where they’ll scatter an estimated 1.1 million packets in October.

Officials have found that the vaccine is safe for use across 60 different types of animals, including domestic dogs and cats. At worst, if too many vaccine packets are consumed, they may cause an upset stomach in dogs. Yet they’ve caused no permanent issues in trials.