Growings On: Bait drops aim to set up rabies buffer

Roger Gates

Rabies is a virus that infects the central nervous system of mammals. Left untreated it is always fatal. Historically, domestic dogs have been the principal reservoir for the virus. Most human infections were caused by dog bites. In the past 30 years, wild mammals, including skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats, have overtaken domestic dogs as the primary reservoir for the virus. Costs associated with detection, prevention and control of rabies exceed $300 million annually in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90% of reported rabies cases in the U.S. are in wildlife.

One branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS). A primary role of this organization is to minimize the introduction of damaging pests and diseases into the country. Inspection and quarantine are principal tools available to protect the health of plants, animals and ultimately humans from foreign pests and disease.

Wild animals are difficult to inspect or quarantine, but may contribute to the harboring and spread of a disease like rabies. Wildlife Services, a division of USDA APHIS, works to promote healthy coexistence of people and wildlife through research and management programs and seeks to resolve wildlife damage to a wide variety of resources and to reduce threats to human health and safety. The National Rabies Management Program, which depends on collaboration among wildlife services and numerous state and local agencies, is operated to prevent the spread of wildlife rabies. The ultimate goal is to eliminate terrestrial rabies in the U.S. through development of oral rabies vaccines. Along with careful testing of wildlife populations, they are the tools used to work toward rabies eradication.

Rabies oral vaccines can be delivered to wildlife using baits. Baits containing the vaccine are distributed in targeted areas to manage and prevent the spread of the virus. Oral rabies vaccination has been used in the U.S. since 1990 and in Europe since 1980. Sixteen states are currently using oral rabies vaccines. Vaccine containing baits currently in use in the U.S. consist of a plastic packet which is made attractive to the targeted animal by sprinkling with a fishmeal coating or encasing the vaccine in a hard fishmeal polymer, about the size of a match box.

The vaccine is delivered when an animal bites into the bait and swallows the contents. If an adequate dose is swallowed the animal becomes immune. If the size of the immune population in an area is large enough, a buffer against the spread of rabies into the area bordered is established. Baits can be distributed by ground personnel or from fixed wing aircraft or helicopters.

Beginning Oct. 3, Wildlife Services dispersed approximately 88,000 coated sachet (CS) baits by helicopter in urban and residential areas. Fixed-wing aircraft operations will be used to distribute an additional 88,000 CS baits in rural areas. Fixed-wing operations are tentatively scheduled to begin Monday. Baits contain an oral rabies vaccine. The target area for includes all of Catoosa and Dade counties, large portions of Chattooga, Walker and Whitfield counties and a small portion of Murray County, covering approximately 1,300 square miles.

This bait distribution is designed to prevent the westward movement of the rabies virus most often spread by raccoons. Baits being used have been demonstrated to be safe for dogs, cats, humans and several other animals. There is no risk of contracting rabies by exposure to the bait. If contact with baits occurs, immediately rinse the contact area with warm water and soap.

If you see baits, leave them alone so they can accomplish what they were intended for. Cooperation by people will increase the odds of success in establishing and maintaining a rabies-free buffer and prevent the spread of raccoon rabies into our area.

If you are enjoying the transition away from unseasonably hot temperatures, perhaps you are hoping for a holiday to rationalize a celebration. You’re in luck! Every Oct. 12 is National Farmer's Day. This year it falls on Saturday. National Farmers Day is intended to increase awareness about the farmers behind our nation’s food. Whether you choose to mark the celebration or simply enjoy good eats while enjoying an athletic event, recognize the benefit Americans enjoy because of a safe and plentiful supply of food of remarkable variety.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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