The Tennessee Department of Health is working with the United States Department of Agriculture again this fall to help prevent rabies by distributing oral rabies vaccine for wild raccoons along Tennessee’s borders with Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. After a delay due to the federal government shutdown, the annual baiting program administered by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services, is now underway.
“Control of raccoon rabies is vital to public health, and we are pleased to be part of this important and effective program to reduce rabies in wildlife,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Reducing rabies cases among wild animals helps reduce opportunities for transmission of this dangerous virus to people, pets and livestock.”
Vaccine packets are placed inside fishmeal blocks or coated with fishmeal as bait to attract raccoons. These baits will be distributed throughout a 15-county area in Tennessee to create a barrier against the spread of rabies. The barrier varies from 30 to 60 miles wide and covers approximately 3,400 square miles, running along the Virginia/North Carolina border in northeast Tennessee to the Georgia border in southeast Tennessee near Chattanooga.
Baits will be distributed by helicopter and by hand from vehicles in urban and suburban areas and dropped from specially-equipped airplanes in rural areas. This will be the first time baits have been distributed by helicopter in Tennessee instead of by ground in urban areas including Bristol, Chattanooga, Church Hill, Cleveland, Erwin, Greeneville, Kingsport and Johnson City. Baiting will be done by ground in portions of Hamilton County as a part of a research project.
The oral rabies vaccine will be distributed on the following schedule:
- Oct. 19-21: hand distribution of baits in Hamilton County
- Oct. 22-24: helicopter bait distribution in Hamilton and Bradley Counties (weather permitting)
- Oct. 29-31: helicopter bait distribution in Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hawkins, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties (weather permitting)
- Oct. 24-31: distribution by fixed-wing aircraft in Bradley, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and Polk Counties
“Rabies is most common in wild animals in Tennessee, and it poses a risk to humans and domestic animals that come into contact with wildlife,” said John Dunn, DVM, PhD, deputy state epidemiologist. "It’s important for pet owners to make sure rabies vaccinations are current for dogs and cats to ensure their health and safety, and help provide a barrier between rabies in wild animals and humans. It is also extremely important that raccoons not be transported from one area of the state to another."
Rabies, once disease develops, is almost universally fatal. However, it is completely preventable if vaccine is provided soon after exposure.
This is the 12th year Tennessee has participated in baiting with rabies vaccine to slow and possibly halt the spread of raccoon rabies. There have been no cases of raccoons with rabies in Tennessee this year. Since raccoon rabies was first detected in Tennessee in 2003, the disease has not spread as rapidly here as has been documented in other areas of the United States.
Although the vaccine products are safe, the USDA Wildlife Services program has issued these precautions:
- If you or your pet finds bait, confine your pet and look for other baits in the area. Wear gloves or use a towel and toss baits into a wooded or fencerow area. These baits should be removed from where your pet could easily eat them. Eating these baits won’t harm your pet, but consuming several baits might upset your pet’s stomach.
- Don’t try to remove an oral rabies vaccine packet from your pet’s mouth, as you could be bitten.
- Wear gloves or use a towel when you pick up bait. While there is no harm in touching undamaged baits, they have a strong fishmeal smell. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if there is any chance the vaccine packet has been ruptured.
- Instruct children to leave baits alone.
- A warning label on each bait advises people not to touch the bait, and contains the rabies information line telephone number.
For additional information on rabies prevention or the oral rabies vaccine program, call the USDA Wildlife Services toll-free rabies line at 866 487-3297 or the Tennessee Department of Health at 615 741-7247. You may also find rabies information on the TDH website at http://health.state.tn.us/FactSheets/rabies.htm.
The Tennessee Department of Health urges individuals to enjoy wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats from a distance and keep pets up-to-date on rabies vaccination to help prevent exposure to animals that can carry rabies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a website to help educate children about rabies. Visit the site at www.cdc.gov/rabiesandkids/.
The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. For more information about TDH services and programs, visit http://health.state.tn.us/.