The baiting program is spread over 10 days.
By SEAN BARRON
NORTH LIMA -- Wildlife officials are going to great lengths -- and heights -- to try to take a bite out of a strain of rabies spread by raccoons.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Department of Health launched the oral rabies vaccination distribution program Wednesday at the Youngstown Elser Metro Airport on Sharrott Road here.
Two types of vaccination baits are being distributed on the ground and by any of three planes over the Mahoning Valley and other parts of Northeast and Eastern Ohio, as well as over 13 counties in Pennsylvania and nine in West Virginia.
About the program
The 10-day program, with about 12 flights daily, is set up to prevent the spread of raccoon rabies, which entered Ohio about nine years ago, explained Kathy Smith, public health veterinarian with the Ohio Department of Health.
The baits are designed to immunize raccoons so they are unable to spread the disease, which is nearly always fatal in humans and animals, Smith noted.
"The program is to help the state [of Ohio] and also to protect the upper Midwest," she said, adding that raccoon rabies has spread over most of the East Coast.
The last reported case of raccoon rabies in Mahoning County was in November 2003, Smith added.
Both kinds of baits -- a fishmeal cube and a coated sachet that looks like a ketchup packet -- are tossed on the ground or dropped by a plane flying about 500 feet over targeted wooded and rural areas, explained John Forbes, field coordinator for the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. As a reinforcement, a vaccination zone is established about 20 miles beyond the last known cases, Forbes said.
The bait program is conducted locally once a year, and so far, officials have seen a 30-percent vaccination rate in the raccoon population annually, he estimated. After the program concludes, Forbes continued, officials wait 24 days before trapping the animals and taking blood samples to determine if they ate the baits.
Steps people should take to prevent exposure to raccoon rabies include feeding dogs and cats indoors, taking trash to the curb on pickup days, ensuring garbage is secure and having pets vaccinated, Forbes advised. Those who encounter a sick or strange-acting raccoon should immediately contact their local health department or the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, he noted.
Andrew Silver, a wildlife research technician with the Peterborough, Ont.-based Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, explained that the baits on one of the twin otter planes are placed on a conveyor belt equipped with a drum and a computer.
The computer knows where and when to make the controlled drops while someone in the cockpit uses a switch to shut off the operation when, for example, the plane is over an urban area, homes or a body of water, Silver said.
The plane also contains storage units with about 15,000 additional baits. The setup is similar on the other two planes, he added.
If residents find a bait, they are encouraged to call (877) 722-6725. The toll-free number will put them in touch with their state health department, Forbes said.