The US Department of Agriculture has begun scattering millions of packets of oral rabies vaccine from helicopters and planes over 13 states from Maine to Alabama. The major aim is to keep raccoons from spreading their strain of the deadly virus to states where it hasn't been found or isn't widespread, said field trial coordinator Jordona Kirby of Wildlife Services, which is part of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The USDA is also continuing tests of a vaccine approved in Canada to immunize skunks as well as raccoons, the AP reports.
Rabies is spread through an infected animal’s saliva, usually through bites. However, saliva that gets into the eyes, nose, or mouth can also infect someone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirteen people in South Carolina were considered possibly exposed in March because they had bottle-fed or given medicine to a sick calf that turned out to have rabies, said Dr. Michael Neault, the state veterinarian. Globally, the virus kills 60,000 people a year, most bitten by dogs, the World Health Organization states. That's about the same number that get shots to prevent rabies in the US after being bitten or scratched by an infected or possibly infected animal, according to the CDC.
In all, about 3.75 million packets—coated with a fishmeal attractant or encased in 1-inch fish meal cubes—will be distributed in nine states, ending when 1.1 million are dropped in Alabama in October. The vaccine has been found safe for more than 60 kinds of animals, including domestic dogs and cats. Raccoons are the main rabies reservoir in 18 states along and near the East Coast, and skunks in 21 others, according to data from 2020, the latest year available. Rabid wildlife isn't just a rural problem. A rabid fox on Capitol Hill was caught less than 24 hours after the first report in April. By then, about a half-dozen people had reported bites or nips to Capitol Police, but others may have gone to other agencies. (In upstate New York, a rabid fox attack was caught on video.)