Within the next couple of weeks, researchers at Virginia Tech will be combing a sixth-of-a-mile wooded stretch of the Mount Vernon and Lee districts looking for raccoons. More specifically, 100 raccoons that conveniently got stuck in their traps.
The raccoons will then have blood drawn for testing to see if they have rabies antibodies coursing through their veins. The researchers are hoping they do, because that means the county’s pilot oral rabies vaccine drop is working.
Rabies is a disease that fatally attacks the nervous system of mammals, including humans. Last year the number of confirmed cases of rabies in Virginia reached 502, with Fairfax County reporting 41 of those cases. As of March 27, 18 animals tested positive for the rabies virus in the county, not including cases reported in the incorporated towns and cities. There has not been a reported human infection in Virginia since 1998, and that case was in another part of the commonwealth.
In 2000, the county supervisors authorized the pilot program, which drops baits about the size of Snickers bars in the test site. The baits contain small packets of an oral rabies vaccine and smell like fish to attract raccoons. The hope is the raccoons will eat the bait, along with the vaccine inside, and develop an immunity to the rabies virus.
About three-fourths of the 20,000 baits were dropped by helicopter and by hand on March 4. The remainder will be distributed at Fort Belvoir. This is the third time the county has dropped the baits. There were two drops in 2000.
“We hope to reduce the number of cases,” said Steve Church, senior environmental health specialist with the Health Department. “The idea is that if the animals are exposed to the rabies virus, they don’t develop the disease.”
IN VIRGINIA, raccoons, skunks, foxes and cats make up the majority of infected animals. Fairfax County follows that trend. Of the reported cases last year, 21 were raccoons, eight were skunks, six were bats, five were foxes, and there was one cat.
“Any warm-blooded animal with live-offspring births can contract the virus,” said Linda Smith, administrative assistant for the Health Department’s rabies program. “It’s not common for humans, and if appropriate treatment is given, death does not follow.”
Smith said the treatment consists of a series of five shots over a 28-day period of one type of vaccine, plus a one-time shot of another vaccine. Unlike a few years ago, the shots no longer have to be administered through the stomach. She said it is important for the treatment to begin within 72 hours depending on the type of animal the person came in contact with.
People considered to be in “at-risk” professions — such as animal control officers, researchers, spelunkers or cave explorers — and people traveling to certain areas overseas can receive pre-exposure vaccines, which consist of three injections.
But it is not just humans that need to be protected from rabies. Domesticated animals, including dogs, cats and ferrets, as well as livestock, should be vaccinated against the virus. Virginia law requires all cats, dogs and ferrets be vaccinated beginning at age 4 months and receive regular booster shots every one to three years depending on the vaccine used.
IT IS IMPORTANT to keep pets current on their rabies shots because an animal that has been infected can survive up to six months. During the infectious stage, the animal’s saliva can transmit the virus to another mammal through any open wound on the skin and through the eyes, nose and mouth. Once clinical symptoms such as convulsions, muscular incoordination, extreme irritability, frenzied behavior and foaming at the mouth appear, the animal will die within a week. At the clinical-symptom stage, there is no cure.
Church said the baits that were dropped present no danger to any pets that may find them; however, it is recommended that humans avid touching the blocks. Since the vaccine is a live-virus vaccine, it is possible anyone who handles one of the baits could have a reaction. Anyone finding a bait should call the phone number printed on it.
“Animals will find the baits and bring them to their owners,” Church said. “They are not harmful to the animals. So far there has only been one call from someone who found a bait.”
For general information about rabies, call the Virginia Health Department at 703-246-2433. Information is also available on the department’s Web site at www.vdh.state.va.us/epi/rabies.htm and on the county’s Web site at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/ps/ac/rabfacts.htm.