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Vermont to airdrop oral rabies vaccine

Published: 8/11/2019 9:11:32 PM
Modified: 8/11/2019 9:11:30 PM

The state is gearing up to airdrop an oral rabies vaccine across Vermont — an initiative that officials say is a “research project” with far-reaching public benefits.

Starting Sunday, Vermonters will see 450,000 packs of bait fall into dozens of communities statewide. The bait will be airdropped from planes and, in more populated areas, hand-placed to avoid homes and roadways.

According to Vermont public health veterinarian Natalie Kwit, the packs will not harm pets or humans. Instead, like injectable vaccines, the bait is designed to make animals’ immune systems develop antibodies to fight off rabies.

“This program is important because we want to prevent rabies in wildlife,” Kwit said. “We’ve had rabies for quite some time in this state, at least since the ’90s. With vaccinating wildlife, that means there’s less likelihood of transmitting rabies to humans.”

The bait will be distributed across nine counties in the northern part of the state. U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services rabies biologist Owen Montgomery said the program was conceived 23 years ago to create a rabies-blocking buffer between the U.S. and Canada — but as the initiative grows, Montgomery hopes the program will shift to other areas.

“This year we have a zone 20 miles south of the (Canadian) border that is not being baited. That’s the first step of us trying to move the bait zone, and hopscotch things southward to push the terrestrial strain of rabies out of the state,” Montgomery said.

According to Montgomery, the program has seen changes beyond geography in the past few years. The state recently moved to a new type of bait — one still in the process of being licensed by the FDA — and Montgomery said it has proved effective so far.

“What we’ve found is our level of vaccinations, say, in the Northeast Kingdom doubled just by switching to this bait,” Montgomery said. “It’s a better delivery system.”

Today, the vaccines work by sealing a liquid inside a blister pack with a waxy coating. Montgomery said the pack has the odor of “the most rich caramel that you have ever smelled.” Kwit described it as “lovely, like a vanilla cookie.”

“When they puncture the packet, it squirts in their mouths. It’s a natural reflex to just swallow,” Montgomery added. “They don’t need all of the contents (of the packet) to vaccinate them.”

Rabies is on the decline in recent years, although it remains to be seen whether that improvement is because of the vaccine alone. Kwit said that the number of animal rabies cases in 2019 is around half the number from last August. In 2018, there were 24 cases total; in 2017, there were 41.

But Kwit emphasized that rabies, while increasingly rare, poses a serious threat to those infected. The viral brain disease is fatal if left untreated — and until the infection is eradicated, humans and their pets need to keep up-to-date on vaccines. According to Kwit, farmers should take special care around livestock. In Vermont, cows are the domestic animal most likely to test positive for rabies.

“Nationally, it’s cats,” Kwit said. “So that’s very Vermont of us.”

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