The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently using light aircraft and off-road vehicles to drop thousands of doses of vaccine in Baldwin County, but the effort is unrelated to the coronavirus. Instead, the agency is targeting raccoons and other wildlife known to carry the rabies virus.
According to a letter distributed to residents in the 1,613-square-mile target zone, beginning Jan. 24, the USDA’s Wildlife Services program will distribute approximately 224,100 doses of RABORAL V-RG oral rabies vaccine (ORV) in an area that includes “most of the coastal peninsula” and parts of Spanish Fort, Daphne, Fairhope and Foley.
The vaccine is contained inside of a plastic packet embedded within square blocks made of fishmeal and fish oil. Each bait is imprinted with information about the bait and a toll-free number to report contacts.
According to the letter, “it is recommended that anyone who finds a bait leave it alone to allow wildlife to find it.” The letter suggests that if a pet finds a bait, people should not try to take it away.
Concerns have been raised about the vaccine’s effects on dogs, cats, horses and livestock, which may come into incidental contact with the baits. The manufacturer admits the baits may also attract dogs and cats, but suggests “it has been demonstrated safe in more than 50 species of animals including dogs.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), which partners with USDA to implement the baiting program, added the vaccine does not contain the live rabies virus.
“It contains only a single gene that is passcoded with the outer coating of the rabies virus,” according to information from ADPH. “The virus that carries this single gene may cause a local pox-type infection in people who are pregnant or immunosuppressed.”
Pets or livestock that eat a large number of the baits “may cause a temporarily upset stomach in your pet, but it does not pose a long-term health risk. Do not risk getting bitten or being exposed to the vaccine by attempting to remove a bait from your pet. If your pet becomes ill from bait consumption, please contact your veterinarian for more information.”
ADPH advises there are two different strains of rabies virus in the state: the raccoon variant and the bat variant. The raccoon strain can infect other wildlife, such as foxes, coyotes, skunks and pets. Vaccination of dogs, cats and ferrets is required by law. Vaccinations for other species, such as horses and livestock, are also available and recommended. The bat variant can also infect pets or people. Alabama averages around 50 cases of laboratory-confirmed cases of rabies each year in wildlife, most of which are in raccoons, but the state has not recorded a case in a human since 1994.
According to Denise Rowell, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), USDA consulted with FWS to make sure the rabies baiting project did not harm threatened and endangered species.
“We provided the USDA with information about the Alabama beach mouse, which is an endangered species in Baldwin County,” Rowell wrote. “The USDA agreed to avoid those areas of beach mouse habitat. Also, the USDA agreement does not include federal property. So they are not allowed to drop bait at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.”
The USDA did not immediately respond to more information about this story.
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