Rabies vaccines are falling from planes by the thousands in Western NC. Here’s why

·3 min read

Hundreds of thousands of small, waxy packets the size of matchboxes have descended on Western North Carolina in a little-known ritual to help inoculate wild raccoons against a rampant virus.

No, not that one.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services has been dropping rabies vaccines from planes along North Carolina’s western borders since 2005 — long before most people knew about the coronavirus or concerned themselves with vaccine mandates — as part of an annual baiting program targeting raccoons.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced the start of its annual oral rabies vaccination program with little fanfare at the end of September. Beginning Oct. 5, officials said, more than 500,000 baits containing the vaccine would descend from a “fixed wing aircraft” over counties in the western part of the state.

They include Ashe, Alleghany, Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Swain, Transylvania, Wilkes and Yancey counties.

The mass inoculation is expected to wrap up by mid-October, N.C. DHHS said.

According to health officials, the baits are made of a plastic packet containing the vaccine that’s either “sprinkled with a fishmeal coating or encased inside hard fishmeal–polymer blocks.” Fish meal is a ground powder made from the “cooked flesh of fish,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“When a raccoon bites into a bait, the vaccine packet is punctured, and the animal is exposed to the vaccine,” N.C. DHHS said. “This activates the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies that provide protection against rabies infection.”

Rabies only affects mammals, with more than 90% of reported cases occurring in wildlife, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

North Carolina’s annual vaccine drop is part of a nationwide effort to dampen the spread of rabies that dates to 1997 and is known as the National Rabies Management Program.

It is the “largest coordinated effort to control a zoonotic disease in wildlife populations ever undertaken in the U.S.,” National Geographic previously reported. Zoonotic diseases refer to germs that spread between humans and animals.

A reporter with the magazine accompanied wildlife officials as they scattered rabies vaccines across Pittsburgh and rural Pennsylvania in 2019. The tiny packets were distributed by plane, hand and car in every nook and cranny of the state — from wooded lots to storm drains.

A similar process unfolds yearly in other states, including Ohio, Texas and Vermont.

What to do if you come across a packet of rabies vaccine

Health officials in North Carolina said the vaccine packets don’t contain the live rabies virus and can’t cause rabies.

“Anyone who comes into contact with the liquid vaccine should wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water and call the phone number listed on the bait for further instructions and referral,” officials said.

USDA Wildlife Services also recommends leaving the bait where it is unless it’s on a person’s lawn or driveway. The bait can then be safely moved to an area where raccoons are more likely to find it using gloves or another “barrier” to protect against the strong fish smell.

If a pet eats several baits, Wildlife Services said, they may get an upset stomach. But officials don’t recommend trying to take the packet out of a pet’s mouth, “as you could be bitten.”

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