Raccoons have reputations as masked bandits, but luckily, their shrewd scavenging characteristics may be beneficial for protecting public health.
NPR reported in early November that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been able to more effectively take advantage of the critters’ tendency to pick up food and trash from the ground by dropping rabies vaccines from the sky with low-flying planes in rural areas.
“… The planes have a tube and a conveyor belt that just drops these vaccines to make sure they’re sort of evenly dispersed,” WIRED reporter Emily Mullin told NPR.
Jordona Kirby, a USDA wildlife biologist and field coordinator for the National Rabies Management Program, said that the method of delivery over tens of thousands of miles has basically stopped rabies from spreading across the eastern U.S.
The oral vaccines, which are reportedly fish- and vanilla-flavored, can treat other animals that may eat them, including foxes, skunks, and coyotes, and do not hurt pets.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 93% of rabies cases in the U.S. are in wild animals, with raccoons accounting for 30.3% of infections.
Deaths caused by rabies have declined dramatically in the U.S., but the rising temperatures of our planet linked to the use of dirty energy, like gas or coal, has raised new concerns regarding the spread of the virus, along with other diseases. As their habitat has changed, wildlife carrying rabies have migrated to new areas, per the CDC.
The intent of the airdrop program is to eventually prevent cases of rabies in raccoons altogether.
“That is our long-term vision,” Kirby told NPR.
“We’ve been able to prevent raccoon rabies from moving westward,” Charles Rupprecht, former chief of the CDC’s rabies program, told Mullin for WIRED. “What we haven’t been able to do is eliminate it from any state where raccoon rabies currently exists.”
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