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Rabies Vaccine Drop Under Way

If you live in the Mount Vernon and Lee District areas east of Interstate 95 and south of the Beltway, you might be experiencing heavy helicopter traffic overhead. It's not part of the war on terrorism; it's the war on rabies.

As of March 4, the Fairfax County Health Department launched its oral rabies vaccine campaign against the East Coast's primary carrier of the deadly disease, the raccoon. The campaign is being conducted in cooperation with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

Approximately 20,000 oral rabies vaccine doses will be distributed on 4,651 selected properties with high raccoon activity in the two districts, according to Fairfax County officials. Property owners were notified of the plan in December and given the opportunity to decline, officials confirmed.

Up to 90 percent of the vaccine will be distributed by trained staff from a commercial helicopter equipped with a computerized navigational system designed to identify the target properties.

The remaining vaccine will be dispersed manually by Virginia Tech personnel. It is sealed inside small green bait blocks carrying identifying information.

"It was done in the spring and fall of 2000," according to Dr. Francois Elvinger, associate professor of veterinary medicine, Virginia Tech. "The vaccine is contained in little bags that are covered with fish meal that attract the raccoons.

"They are drawn to the bags by the scent. When they break them open, they either ingest the vaccine or it enters their system by them getting it on their skin," Dr. Elvinger explained.

Aerial drops, operating between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., are scheduled to be completed by mid-March. Ground-level activities are to be completed by the end of April.

NO DANGER TO HUMANS OR PETS

Government personnel have issued assurances that the liquid vaccine cannot cause rabies and poses no danger to either people or pets. But it is advised that contact should be avoided, and "anyone spotting a bait block should leave it alone."

Officials noted that of the 40,000 baits previously placed in Fairfax County, there have been only five reported instances of any being found by either people or pets. To track possible contacts with the vaccine, those finding a bait block are asked to call the Oral Rabies Vaccine Pilot Program information line at 703-246-5333.

"Three or four weeks after the vaccine drops, we trap the raccoons, anesthetize them and take blood samples," Elvinger said. "We hope to get 40- to 50-percent positive readings, which means they are rabies free."

"That Fairfax County has the highest rabies rate in the state is probably attributable to the fact that we do more testing than most of the rest of the state," Steve Church, Senior Environmental Health Specialist, Fairfax County Health Department, explained.

"If there was a scientific analysis done statewide we would probably be about the same as other urbanized areas. There are more circumstances were people and pets come in contact with wildlife in an urban setting.

"When pets come in contact with raccoons or foxes or other wild animals, the owners want them tested to see if they have been infected. This give us more data," he noted.

Of all Virginia counties, Fairfax has reported the highest number of rabies cases annually. But there has been a steady decline in recent years, with 107 cases in 1999, 72 cases in 2000, and 46 cases in 2001. Thus far, in 2002, there have been 11 reported cases in the county.

"This procedure has been very successful in other areas of the country. The two most dramatic were in the St. Petersburg area of Florida and in Anne Arundel County, Md. In both areas rabies cases dropped to one a year," Elvinger said.

The vaccine administration procedure has also been employed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the western areas of Virginia, according to Elvinger. "We have done this in the western tip of Virginia in an attempt to put up a barrier to stop the spread of the virus westward," he explained.

An always fatal viral disease unless treated, rabies affects the nervous system in mammals. The oral vaccine being utilized in the project is one of the most extensively tested animal vaccines, according to authorities. Studies on more than 60 species of dogs and cats have demonstrated both its safety and effectiveness.

"The rabies virus in raccoons is different than that found in skunks or foxes," according to Elvinger. "Skunks and foxes are not as susceptible to the vaccine, but they are also not as likely to pass it on to pets and humans."

Elvinger said, "Raccoons carry the virus more, and they can also transfer it to other species more readily." Once the raccoons are tested and confirmed inoculated, they will be set free, Elvinger assured.