Sarah Boden / WESA
Sarah Boden covers health, science and technology for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio, where she covered a range of topics, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
Sarah’s coverage has appeared in NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday, and WBUR’s Here and Now. She has won multiple awards, including a regional Edward R. Murrow for her story of a legal challenge to Iowa criminal offenses.
August 11, 2021 | 4:04 pm
(Pittsburgh) – The best place to place rabies vaccine bait is where raccoons can find it, but pets and humans cannot. So Lori Horowitz avoided the dumpster behind a residential building in Natrona Heights and instead threw several pieces of vaccine bait over a fence into a grove.
Horowitz is one of approximately 85 employees and volunteers in Allegheny County who are distributing doses of oral rabies vaccine bait across the Pittsburgh area, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes is key to the goal of raccoon rabies eradication. That’s why Horowitz and other baits put in bushes, sewers, and on the lawns of abandoned houses in the hopes that raccoons will find and consume the vaccine.
The USDA said it provided the county with about 40,000 cans, each encapsulated in hard, waxy fishmeal cubes about 1 by 1 inch in size. The bait isn’t toxic to humans or pets, but it smells like rancid dog food or rotting fish.
Sarah Boden / WESA
“I threw a bait and got a piece of fish meal in my mouth. And it’s not a pleasant experience, ”said Horowitz.
Rabies can infect any mammal, although raccoons in the United States are most likely to transmit the disease. Deaths are rare, with the US recording an average of 1-3 deaths per year. However, if someone is bitten or scratched by a rabid animal and does not receive the post-exposure prophylactic vaccine shortly thereafter, they will almost certainly die. Around 55,000 people per year receive this expensive treatment, which is not always covered by health insurances.
Most raccoons live in urban environments because human litter is a great source of food and sewers are an easy way for the animals to get around. Pittsburgh is the westernmost city in the United States where raccoon rabies is found.
“If we can’t figure out how to get rabies out of Pittsburgh, then we’re not sure how to get it out of bigger cities like Philadelphia, New York whenever we get there,” said USDA wildlife biologist Amy Hess who directs the rabies vaccination program in Pennsylvania.
This year, the USDA is increasing its flight operations with around 400,000 cans being dropped in western Pennsylvania, half of which will be in the Pittsburgh area. About 200,000 additional baits will be distributed in other parts of the Commonwealth.
At the Allegheny County Airport, Hess opened a box of the air bait. The packaging is much lighter than the basic bait and is similar to spice packets from a fast food restaurant. Another change to the USDA’s 2021 Rabies Control Plan is to add vanilla-flavored bait to the western edges of the county in addition to the fish-flavored bait.
“Raccoons change their diet over the course of the season. That’s why they often like sweet things in summer, ”said Hess.
For a while, the Appalachians acted as a natural barrier that kept rabid raccoons in eastern cities. But they made it over the mountains in the mid-1990s, prompting the federal government to take containment measures. The work was worth it. The USDA says it stopped the spread of raccoon rabies and estimates that without the more than two decades long slowdown, the variant could have spread to Wisconsin in the west and the Texas-Louisiana border.
“Right now, rabies can cost up to $ 500 million just to treat and manage here on the East Coast,” Hess said. “So could we imagine these projections if raccoon rabies had actually made it west? It would be astronomical. “
Sarah Boden / WESA
Now the USDA says its goal is to push rabies east again until it is completely eradicated.
That might be possible given how successfully parts of Canada have dramatically reduced rabies among its raccoons. To keep it that way, the Department of Northern Development, Mining, Natural Resources and Forestry of Ontario supports USDA mitigation efforts. As of 2013, the province has been supplying 25% of the USDA’s raccoon rabies bait distributed along the Ontario-New York border, according to the department.
Animal behavior researcher Suzanne MacDonald, who specializes in urban raccoon populations, supports this use of her tax money. That’s because Toronto, Ontario has a particularly dense population of raccoons. If raccoon rabies hits the city, MacDonald said it could cause a public health disaster.
“In urban areas, raccoon contact is much higher. That’s why we’re worried about the greater Toronto area because it’s so connected, ”said MacDonald, who teaches at York University. “Once it’s in, it won’t die out.”
Next month, USDA employees plan to take blood samples from live raccoons to see the percentage found and eaten the vaccine bait. In previous years, up to half of the raccoons examined were immunized. This year the USDA is hoping to hit 70%.