Air War Against Rabies

A snow plow makes its way past a Valentine's Day display outside a flower shop in North Andover, Mass., Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007.
AP Photo/Mary Schwalm
In the skies over the Appalachian range, an aerial assault conducted by the United States and Canada is about to intensify to stop the spread of a dangerous enemy: rabies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared a state of emergency and pumped $4.2 million dollars into a program to vaccinate raccoons in Ohio and West Virginia against rabies, hoping to stop the spread of the disease into the western United States.

Rabies' cost to the United States is estimated at $450 million — the cost of vaccination shots to people and pets who may have been exposed to the disease which, if treatment isn't started soon enough, is "invariably fatal," according to USDA rabies program head Dennis Slate.

"It is kind of a scary disease," Slate said.

And it might be getting scarier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 years ago most rabies cases occurred in domestic animals. Now, more than 90 percent of rabies cases now occur in wildlife. And with people living in closer to nature, the danger of transmission has grown.

That's especially true with the strain of rabies that infects raccoons. According to Slate, raccoons "are well adapted to humans and frequently prosper in suburbs."

Right now, the strain only affects raccoons in the East. Western states are affected by gray fox or canine rabies. Since the mid-1990s, the USDA, state health departments and Canada have worked to keep raccoon rabies from spreading west by vaccinating animals to create a barrier — a part of the raccoon population that cannot spread the disease to western cousins.

They do it by using specially designed Canadian aircraft, which air drop biscuit-sized bait containing the vaccine into the wilderness

Reducing Rabies Risks
  • Keep pets' vaccinations up to date. Don't let pets come into contact with wild animals. If a pet is bitten by an animal, seek veterinary assistance.
  • If you see a stray animal, call animal control to remove it.
  • Do not handle or feed wild animals, and keep garbage cans closed and litter picked up to avoid attracting them.
  • Never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home. Do not try to nurse sick animals to health.
  • Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals — wild or domestic.
  • Prevent bats from entering areas where they might come in contact wit people and pets.

    (Source: CDC)

  • size>
    "Then, hopefully the wildlife will eat the bait and then they will be vaccinated," explained USDA spokeswoman Teresa Howes.

    Raccoon rabies occurs in all eastern seaboard states as well as Alabama, West Virginia, Vermont and eastern Ohio. The USDA now wants to create barrier across western Ohio and into West Virginia.

    Rabies is a virus that can be passed through several means but is usually transmitted through a bite containing an animal's infected saliva. The disease begins with flu-like symptoms, then exhibits neurological symptoms like paralysis and blindness, with death occurring within a few days.

    An infected person or animal can be saved by taking a five-shot vaccine sequence before the virus is fully activated. Only six people have ever survived rabies without taking a vaccine.

    In 1998, the last year available, the CDC reports 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico reported 7,962 animal cases. Only Hawaii has never reported a case of rabies.

    The aerial assault is part of a program that Slate calls "phased."

    "We need to contain the spread of raccoon rabies so that it does infect a broader area of the U.S.," Slate said. Then health officials can begin trying to eliminate the raccoon strain within areas of the country already infected by it.

    "If we can contain, we certainly can work away at that," he said.

    But eliminating rabies altogether would be quite difficult, since there's no known weapon against the strains that affect bats or skunks.