August 7, 2008

Agency Baits Raccoons to Help Prevent Rabies

By Allison M. Heinrichs, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 7--Over the past seven years, Allegheny County's rabid raccoon population has taken a nose-dive -- thanks to hundreds of thousands of waxy, smelly, brown blocks of vaccine-laced bait.

Health Department workers last week hand-delivered 190,000 packets of oral rabies vaccine to the brush and ditches to the county's 130 municipalities.

People should leave the bait alone unless it is on their lawns, in a street or somewhere else that a raccoon is unlikely to find it. In those cases, people can use gloves or a paper towel to move the bait into the underbrush.

"We haven't yet eradicated rabies in raccoons, but we've certainly made a dent," said Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole.

When the program, sponsored by the federal and state agriculture departments, began in Allegheny County in 2002, there were 23 rabid raccoons reported. Last year there were nine and so far this year, there have been four.

The Health Department announced earlier this week that a rabid stray cat found in Bethel Park bit at least one person, who is being treated.

Pittsburgh is the western front in the Department of Agriculture's rabies eradication efforts. The rabid raccoon population is mostly in Eastern Seaboard states, dipping a few miles into Ohio, said Harris Glass, state director with the USDA wildlife services.

One of the best ways for people to avoid contracting rabies is to get pets vaccinated and leave stray cats alone, Glass said.

"People are often exposed because they bring a stray animal, like a cat, into their home and it scratches somebody," he said. "Or a rabid animal bites the family pet and that pet then spreads it to people."

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, causing brain swelling and death. Early symptoms include a fever and headache; victims can then develop anxiety, confusion, partial paralysis, difficulty swallowing and fear of water. The United States averages about two to three human rabies deaths annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People can report animals they suspect have rabies to either the county Health Department, 412-687-ACHD, or the USDA, 724-238-7320.


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