The United States Department of Agriculture, an agency of the Federal government, announced this month that it would begin a program to air-drop millions of doses of an oral vaccine on public and private land throughout the United States.
The oral vaccines are intended to prevent the spread of rabies in wildlife. Rabies is often deadly, the USDA says, but it is 100% preventable. Rabies has already been largely eliminated in domestic animals in the United States, but it does still spread in wildlife like raccoons and bats.
The airdrops of vaccines are intended mainly to address the spread of the virus in raccoons. The packets of vaccine are treated with a fish meal flavored attractant, making them appealing to raccoons. When the raccoons eat the packet, they become vaccinated against the virus.
To deliver the vaccines, the USDA is flying helicopters over several areas in Massachusetts, Maine, and regions of the South over the next several months. Employees drop the flavored vaccine packets from the helicopters as they fly low over forests or other land.
If you see a helicopter flying above your property and dropping small packets, it is likely part of the USDA's oral vaccination efforts.
Safety of the Vaccine Packets
The USDA says that the packets are safe for 60 species of animals, including domestic cats and dogs. If your dog or cat eats a packet, they may pick up some rabies immunity, although the packets' manufacturer says they are not a substitute for traditional rabies vaccines for pets (Most states already require vaccination for domestic animals.)
The USDA does caution that if your dog or cat eats a lot of the packets, they may have an upset stomach. They also caution people not to touch the packets. If you or your kids were to touch the packets, the USDA says you should wash your hands with water and soap.
Still, the Material Safety Data Sheet for the vaccine packets contains some concerning information. It says that the packets are "Potentially hazardous to health if any of the following should occur: Ingestion, parenteral inoculation, droplet or aerosol exposure of mucous membranes or if broken skin is exposed to infectious fluids or tissues."
The MSDS says "All people should avoid contact, but young children, pregnant women, individuals with immune deficiencies or those on steroids should avoid contact with this vaccine."
Fighting rabies is, of course, an important task. Still, the dropping of materials onto private property will recall previous efforts, such as the application of DDT, a spectre that it still very present for many ranchers and farmers.
For that reason, it's essential for the public to know about these applications of live rabies vaccines. They need to understand what it taking, and also avoid contact with the packets (pictured above) in the event that a packet is seen in the woods or on a person's property.
Education and buy-in are essential to the success of any public health program.
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