Federal, state agencies fight rabies problem in south

Photo By Rick Harris
Local health officials remind area residents to have their pets vaccinated against rabies. Dr. Sluss and an assistant prepare an injection for a dubious patient at Sycamore Shoals Animal Hospital.

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Tennessee and Virginia state health departments are working together on a program to help stop the westward spread of raccoon rabies.
Tennessee and Virginia officials began oral rabies vaccination bait drop operations this week in hopes that they will curb the spread of the disease. The program is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's wildlife resources program. More than 600,000 fishmeal baits which contain the oral rabies vaccination will be distributed across portions of eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
According to a statement released by the Tennessee Department of Health, approximately 260,000 vaccine-filled baits are being disbursed across a 1,450 square-mile area of Tennessee, and 400,000 baits are being distributed across a 2,000 square mile area of southwest Virginia.
"The majority of the ice-cube size lures are being distributed by low-flying planes in forested and rural areas through early October, with dispersal by hand of some 19,000 baits in Tennessee towns and 12,000 baits in Virginia's populated areas," the release from the Tennessee Department of Health states.
Seven counties in Northeast Tennessee are involved in the vaccination effort, including Washington, Sullivan, Hawkins, Hancock, Hamblen, Greene and Grainger, as well as eight Virginia counties -Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, Washington and Wise.
"People and pets cannot get rabies from coming into contact with the baits and are encouraged to leave the cubes undisturbed should they encounter them," information from the TDH states.
Raccoon rabies was first seen in Northwest Virginia in 1978, and has since spread throughout most of the state. In 2002, Virginia documented 591 laboratory-confirmed cases of rabid animals, and raccoons represented more than half of all cases. The majority of the other cases were animals infected by the raccoon strain of rabies.
"Tennessee had no cases of raccoon rabies until this year. Five cases have been identified in the easternmost tip of Tennessee in Carter and Johnson counties -- east of the baiting area," information from the TDH states.
Raccoon rabies is caused by a virus that attacks the brain. Symptoms include unusual behavior, an inability to eat or drink, balance problems, circling, seizures, coma and finally death. By vaccinating raccoons against rabies, federal and state officials are working to significantly reduce the number of animals that can serve as reservoirs of the disease and infect other wildlife, domestic animals or humans.
Area residents are being advised to make sure their pet's rabies vaccination is current. State law requires that dogs and cats be vaccinated against the disease at the age of three months.
According to regional health officials, the public must assume that rabies is present throughout the raccoon population. Raccoons which have contracted the disease become very aggressive and may attack other animals or humans.
Health officials urge residents to keep garbage cans covered since raccoons traditionally attempt to obtain food from them. Residents are also advised not to store cat or dog food outside as this may also attract raccoons.
Residents should call their local health department or animal shelter if they encounter a raccoon or any other wild animal which is behaving strangely. Any person who fears he or she may have been exposed to a rabid animal is urged to seek medical attention immediately.