Raccoons to get vaccine treat
Beginning Monday, more than a million foul-smelling, bite-sized blocks of bait will be distributed through Butler County and neighboring counties in an effort to help keep raccoons from becoming rabid.
The bait, made from fish meal and fish oil, which raccoons find especially appetizing, also contains a powerful vaccine against rabies, according to state health officials.
"This is a new effort being done here in Pennsylvania," said Jessica Seiders, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health.
Dr. Wafa Rizk, an emergency room physician at Butler Memorial Hospital, said the vaccine should help to reduce the number of animals contracting rabies and passing it on to humans.
At any one time, Rizk said, Butler Memorial Hospital is treating three or four people who have been bitten by animals. While in many cases doctors do not know whether the animals are rabid, the people have been exposed "in a way that is suspicious enough so that we must immunize them," he said.
Next week's wildlife vaccine program is being launched in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of a troubling increase in raccoon-transmitted rabies in the state, Seiders said.
So far this year, three cases of rabies have been reported in Butler County. That includes the case of a woman in Callery attacked by a rabid raccoon in July, according to the state health department.
Throughout last year, three cases of rabies were reported in the county, according to the health department.
Based on the success of a similar wildlife rabies vaccination effort in Ohio and West Virginia, Pennsylvania health officials decided to try the rabies vaccine, Seiders said.
"We're going to be traveling along a little strip, starting with the border on western Pennsylvania," she said.
That "little strip" encompasses a 40-mile swath extending eastward from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and including all or parts of Butler, Allegheny, Beaver, Crawford, Erie, Fayette, Greene, Lawrence, Mercer, Venango and Washington counties.
Within that 6,469-square-mile area, the oral rabies vaccine bait will be distributed for up to four weeks by aircraft and vehicles on the ground, Seiders said.
"It's a square block compressed with a mixture of fish meal and fish oil … and in it is the vaccine for rabies," she said.
The vaccine, which is found in the bait in the form of a pink liquid, is Raboral-V, an oral rabies vaccine manufactured by Merial Inc. of Athens, Ga., specifically for use in wild raccoons.
Raccoons that eat the bait develop antibodies in two to three weeks that protect them if they are exposed to another infected raccoon.
Seiders said health officials expect most of the bait to be consumed by raccoons within the first five days it is distributed.
Altogether, 1.26 million bait blocks will be distributed in rural areas of western Pennsylvania, she said. Raccoons are being targeted "because they are a major carrier of rabies," she said.
The idea is for healthy raccoons to eat the bait and to be vaccinated against rabies, Seiders said. Raccoons that already are rabid will not be helped by the vaccine.
The more animals that are immunized, the less risk of rabies being transmitted to other animals and people, Rizk said.
Seiders said the number of rabies cases statewide has increased slightly in the past five years, and the goal of the vaccine program is to prevent further increases.
Rabies can be deadly if a person is bitten by a rabid animal and does not receive prompt treatment.
Hospital emergency rooms have the rabies vaccine and antiserum that is used to treat people who come in contact with a rabid animal, according to the State Health Center in Armstrong County, which also serves Butler County.
"Our last case of a (human) death from rabies was in 1984 … a young boy in Lycoming County," Seiders said.
Despite the wildlife vaccine effort, she warned people to always be on the lookout for strange-acting raccoons.
Because raccoons are nocturnal and most active in the nighttime, anyone seeing a raccoon during the day should take special precautions, she said.
Here are the numbers rabies cases reported in Pennsylvania each year from 1996 to the present:
|Year||Number of rabies cases|
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health