The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been airdropping oral rabies vaccines in southern Letcher County and Harlan County and Southwestern Virginia to head off raccoon variant rabies before it reaches Kentucky.
In addition, the agency is asking area residents for help in identifying animals that might have the disease. Flyers placed in post offices around the area describe Letcher, Pike, Harlan and Bell counties, along with Hancock, Hawkins and Claiborne counties in Tennessee, as an increased rabies surveillance priority area.
Two raccoons have been found with the disease in Wise County, Va., where the USDA has been trying to build a 20-mile wide vaccinated barrier to prevent the disease from spreading west. It was the first time the raccoon variant of the disease had been found in that area.
Erin Patrick, a wildlife biologist with the USDA Wildlife Services, said the latest infected coon was found May 30 about two miles from where the first specimen was found in early May. Both were near Big Stone Gap. Aerial drops began May 31.
Rabies is fairly common in Kentucky in skunks and bats, and is found occasionally in foxes. A rabid raccoon has never been found in Kentucky, Patrick said, and the ones found around Big Stone Gap are the first to be found there.
“We’re trying to stop that movement,” she said.
To do that, USDA is using fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to drop biodegradable plastic pouches filled with a rabies vaccine and baited with a fish meal crumble in wooded areas along the Kentucky-Virginia border. Patrick described the packets as similar to ketchup packs.
“This is the first time ever in Kentucky that we’ve been airdropping,” Patrick said. “And this is the first time we’ve ever injected raccoons with vaccine.”
The federal agency, in coordination with the Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife Resources and local health departments, is trapping and blood testing raccoons in the area. So far, more than 60 coons have been trapped in Letcher and Harlan counties. All have tested negative for rabies, and all have gotten rabies vaccine injections before being released.
USDA expects to be finished baiting this week, and then will return to the area for more trapping and testing around the first of July. Those tests will try to determine whether the oral vaccine took effect, and how what percentage of raccoons were reached with the airdrop.
Meanwhile, residents are asked to report wild animals that look sick, or that are found dead, by calling USDA Wildlife Services at 1-866-487-3297 toll free. The department keeps freezers at the Letcher County Extension office and the Harlan Animal Shelter to store carcasses of animals suspected of having rabies.