In August, Virginia joined the Department of Agriculture and six other eastern states in an effort to stop the westward spread of rabies in raccoons.
Officials from the USDA's Wildlife Services began distributing more than 400,000 fish meal baits containing the rabies vaccine across a 2,000 square-mile area in southwest Virginia on Aug. 27. The USDA is funding the $700,000 project in Virginia.
The ice cube-sized baits are being distributed by hand in populated areas; however, low-flying planes will distribute most of the baits in forested and rural areas. The distribution area includes all or parts of eight counties: Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Scott, Russell, Washington, Wise, and Tazewell.
Jennifer Cromwell, the assistant director of Wildlife Services in Virginia, said the hope is that once a rabies-free barrier is established, the westward spread of rabies by raccoons can be stopped and officials can focus their efforts on eradicating the disease in areas where it now exists.
The vaccine used in the baits immunizes raccoons, coyotes, and foxes that eat the baits. The baits cannot cause rabies in humans and other animals, however, because the rabies glycoprotein portion of the vaccine is noninfective.
New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont are also participating in the multistate effort to establish a rabies-free barrier in the eastern United States.
Rabies was first detected in raccoons in northwest Virginia in 1978 and has since spread throughout most of the state. In 2001, there were 502 laboratory-confirmed rabid animals in Virginia, and more than half the cases were raccoons. Most of the other cases were animals infected with the raccoon strain of rabies.