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Diseases & Topics

Oral Rabies Vaccine (ORV) Program

Beginning in the late 1970s, a strain of rabies virus associated with raccoons rapidly spread along the east coast of the United States northward from Florida and southward from West Virginia. As the virus invaded new areas, there was an explosive increase in rabid raccoons, with many states reporting over 500 cases in a year. Compounding the problem, raccoon-variant rabies frequently "spills over" into pets, livestock and other wildlife, including some wildlife species that we traditionally consider low-risk for rabies (rabbits, deer, etc).

Before the two raccoon rabies epizootics spread into North Carolina, canine variant rabies was the major source of rabies virus infection to pets, livestock and humans. Raccoon rabies variant was first discovered in skunks at the northern border of North Carolina in Alleghany County in 1990 and then in raccoons in Gates and Pasquotank counties in 1991. On the southern border, raccoon rabies was first identified in Brunswick, Mecklenburg, and Union counties in 1992. By 1995, the two epizootic fronts had met in Harnett County and by 2005, virtually every county in North Carolina had recorded raccoon rabies.

The raccoon rabies epizootic has been associated with tremendous costs for preventive treatments for exposed and potentially exposed humans, and in legal measures taken for pets and livestock. While the eastern raccoon rabies epizootic is generally limited to states east of the Appalachian Mountain ridge from Florida to Maine, steps are being taken to prevent its spread to other parts of the nation. Rabies vaccine in the form of consumable "bait" for wild animals is distributed along the borders of this zone each year. North Carolina is part of a larger vaccination zone that has been established by the USDA Wildlife Services from Maine to Alabama to prevent the westward and northward spread of raccoon rabies. Geographic features such as large lakes and rivers as well as the Appalachian Mountains act as natural barriers that help define the vaccination zone. The ORV vaccine barrier runs from eastern Ohio (beginning at the border with Lake Erie) down the Appalachian ridge to northeastern Alabama.

Since 2006, USDA APHIS Wildlife Services has been working in cooperation with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) to control the spread of raccoon rabies in western North Carolina.  Raboral V-RG (Merial, Ltd) is an oral rabies vaccine that is placed inside a coated sachet. The bait consists of a small packet, similar to a ketchup packet, that is coated with a mixture of fishmeal and fish oil known to attract raccoons. Raccoons that eat the vaccine-laced bait become immune to rabies. This technology has demonstrated promise as an adjunct to traditional rabies control measures.

To accomplish the goal of the ORV program, preventing the westward spread of raccoon rabies, a "vaccine barrier" has been established extending from eastern Ohio (beginning at the border with Lake Erie) down the Appalachian ridge to Mobile County, Alabama, ending at the Gulf of Mexico. Baits are distributed by fixed wing aircraft in rural areas or by helicopter in urban/residential areas. The goal is to prevent the spread of raccoon variant rabies into Tennessee. Baiting typically occurs in September and October in North Carolina.

To see a map of the baiting area and for more information on the background of this program and a list of frequently asked questions, see the USDA website.

If you have any questions about the upcoming bait drop, you can contact Seth Brown, USDA Wildlife Biologist at 919-219-6307 or Andy Moore, District Supervisor at 919-621-7843. People may also call the N.C. Veterinary Public Health program at 919-733-3419 with questions.

Questions & Answers About Safety

Q: What does the bait look like?

A: For raccoons, the formulation is the coated sachet, which consists of a small packet containing the vaccine, which is then coated in fishmeal and oil. The vaccine (dyed pink) is encased within the white plastic package (sachet) that resembles a fast-food style ketchup or mustard packet. A label printed in black on each bait reads: RABIES VACCINE / LIVE VACCINIA VECTOR / DO NOT DISTURB / 1-877-722-6725.

Q: What are the dangers of ORV to humans and other animals?

A: The vaccine and bait are not considered to be dangerous. The bait coating is made of dog food or fishmeal mixed with a non-toxic bonding agent; tetracycline is added as a biomarker. The bait poses no danger to human or animal health. Extensive research in a wide variety of species has shown the oral rabies vaccine inside the packet to be very safe. The vaccine is made by utilizing the most current technology and only non-infectious portions of the rabies virus are used.

Humans and animals are in no danger of developing rabies if they are exposed to the vaccine. However, when people are exposed to the vaccine, it is advised that physicians consider the possibility of complications due to exposure to vaccinia, particularly if the person is immunocompromised or has dermatological conditions such as eczema. However, such reactions are rare.

Q: What if I find a bait near my home?

A: It is best to leave the bait where you found it unless it is on your lawn, driveway, or other area not likely to attract a raccoon or is in an area frequented by children or pets. While wearing a glove, you can move the bait to an area of thicker cover, away from children and pets, where a raccoon will be more likely to find it. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with a bait.

Q: Why do I need to wear a glove when handling a bait?

A: An intact bait will not harm you but the smell may get on your skin and is objectionable to people. If a bait is broken and pink liquid (vaccine) is visible, while wearing gloves you may place the bait in a bag and dispose of it with your regular trash because the bait will no longer be effective. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with a bait.

Q: What if my child finds a bait?

A: The smell of the bait generally prevents children from playing with or tasting them. If your child were to bring you an intact bait, you may place the bait into an area of thick cover; if your child brings you a broken bait, dispose of the bait in your regular trash, wash the exposed skin and call the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services office at 1-866-4 USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297), for further instructions and referral. A person can not get rabies from handling the bait, packets, or vaccine. Some people, especially if they are immunocompromised, may have a localized skin reaction from contact with the vaccine, though such reactions are rare.

Q: Can I get rabies from contact with the vaccine?

A: No. The vaccine does not contain the live rabies virus, only a single gene from the outer coating of the rabies virus. However, the virus that carries this single gene may cause a local pox-type infection in people who are pregnant or have an immunodeficiency disease. If you come into contact with the vaccine, wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water and call the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services office at 1-866-4 USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297), for further instructions and referral.

Q: What if my dog or cat eats a bait?

A: Pet owners in bait distribution areas are asked to keep their dogs and cats inside or on leashes so raccoons can eat the baits. Should your pet touch or eat a bait, the vaccine will not harm it. USDA testing and evaluation has shown the vaccine to be safe in over 50 different species of animals, including domestic dogs and cats. Eating a large number of baits may cause a temporarily upset stomach in your pet but does not pose a long-term health risk. A domestic animal's annual rabies vaccination can be safely administered even if the animal recently ingested a dose of the oral rabies vaccine. Do not attempt to remove a bait from your pet; doing so may cause you to be bitten.

Q: Can I use this bait to vaccinate my dog or cat?

A: No. This vaccine is only approved for use in wildlife. Your pet should be vaccinated by a veterinarian in accordance with state and local laws. A domestic animal's annual rabies vaccination can be safely administered even if the animal recently ingested a dose of the oral rabies vaccine. If you have questions about vaccinating your pet, call your local Animal Control External link or the N.C. Veterinary Public Health Program at 919-733-3419; 24/7 or by e-mail.

Q: How does a raccoon get vaccinated by eating this bait?

A: The vaccine is contained inside a plastic packet that is coated with fishmeal. When a raccoon bites the bait, the vaccine packet is punctured and the vaccine gets into the animal's mouth. The raccoon's immune system is then tricked into thinking it has been exposed to the rabies virus and makes antibodies to fight the disease. The "blueprint" on how to make these antibodies is then stored in the raccoon's immune system, allowing its body to respond quickly should it be exposed to a rabid animal.

Q: How are baits distributed?

A: In rural areas, baits are dropped from airplanes. Baits are distributed in urban and suburban areas by hand. This is done to get the most effective bait distribution and to minimize human contact with baits.

Q: Why should I be worried about rabies in wildlife?

A: Rabies in wildlife is a serious public health concern because infected wild mammals can transmit the rabies virus to domestic animals and to people. If left untreated in animals or people, rabies is always fatal. Costs associated with detection, prevention and control of rabies exceed $300 million annually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 90 percent of reported rabies cases are in wildlife.

Q: How can I find out more information about this program?

A: You can dial 1-866-4 USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297) to speak with staff from the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Wildlife Services national rabies management program, or visit their website at the National Rabies Management Program External link.

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