Starting Thursday, baits containing raccoon rabies vaccine will be distributed in Northeast Ohio.
About 367,000 oral vaccines will be released from low-flying planes and helicopters and by health department personnel in northern Summit County, northern Portage County, eastern Cuyahoga County and all of Lake and Geauga counties.
Summit and Portage communities to be baited to stop the spread of rabies in raccoons are north of the Ohio Turnpike. Also to be treated is the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The distribution of the vaccine over the 1,121 square miles will continue through May 23 in a program involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ohio departments of health, natural resources and transportation.
Two types of bait will be used. Airplanes will drop a small plastic sachet, about the size of a ketchup packet. In urban areas, the vaccine will be inside a hard, brown, 2-by-2-inch, fish-meal block and will be distributed by vehicles on the ground.
Raccoons that eat the vaccine develop antibodies to rabies in two to three weeks and are protected from the disease if exposed to an infected raccoon. The vaccine is good for one year.
Rabies is a virus that attacks the nervous system, and once symptoms appear, it is almost always fatal. If human exposure to a rabid animal is suspected, a series of shots can prevent the disease from developing.
Kristopher Weiss, a spokesman for the Ohio Health Department, said 19 rabid animals — 10 raccoons and nine skunks — were found in Cuyahoga, Geauga and Lake counties in 2007. A year earlier, 10 rabid raccoons had been found in that area.
Ohio began fighting the spread of rabies, which came into the state from Pennsylvania, in 1997. Ohio has been part of a seven-state effort to keep rabies from spreading.
The spring vaccine baiting was started after raccoons tested positive for rabies in Lake, Geauga and Cuyahoga counties in 2004 and 2005.
“The goal is very simple: to strengthen and maintain the immune barrier,” Weiss said.
Most of the bait is expected to be eaten by animals within 72 hours. Residents in the area being baited are asked to keep dogs and cats inside or on leashes for several days after the drop.
Though pets may find and eat the bait packs, officials say it isn’t harmful to them.
The state health department offers the following advice:
— Instruct children to leave the bait alone.
— If you find a bait pack, pick it up with a plastic bag, paper towel or rubber gloves. If intact, toss it into a ditch or wooded area. If it is partially eaten or damaged, place the bait in a plastic bag and dispose of it in the trash.
— If you are exposed to the vaccine (a red liquid), thoroughly wash skin that comes in contact with it with soap and water.
— Vaccinate pets for rabies, refrain from feeding animals outside because that attracts raccoons, and avoid contact with wild animals.