By David Esteppe
With World Rabies Day approaching on Sept. 28, both the Greenbrier County Health Department (GCHD) and the Division of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology (DIDE) are raising awareness about rabies prevention in West Virginia.
GCHD Environmental Health Supervisor Amanda McMichael says the good news is rabies infections in Greenbrier County have been dramatically declining since the beginning of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) field trials involving dropping oral vaccine baits into wildlife areas. After a spike of 45 confirmed rabies infections a few years ago, Greenbrier County has been averaging only seven or eight per year, and has had only one skunk test positive for rabies through Aug. 31.
McMichael strongly promotes best practices for the public in regards to wildlife, pets and children. She encourages all to be vigilant in educating themselves and children in handling themselves around any strange animal, including domestic pets. When asked what one should do if they see a suspicious animal, McMichael responded, “Avoid strange animals and pets; and for a strangely behaving animal call 911, where you will be directed to the proper authorities.” Few animals exhibiting illness and suspicious behavior actually end up testing positive for rabies; more often the problem is distemper, which presents many of the same symptoms and behaviors. She added that a common mistake pet owners make is feeding their pets outside. If one must feed their animals outside, they should be diligent about not leaving leftover food outside, which is too tempting to wildlife. In short, do not befriend and feed wild animals.
According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, there has only been one case of human rabies infection since 1994; but it is estimated that there are over 2,500 case investigations each year throughout the state.
USDA Wildlife Biologist Samual Mills explained that currently APHIS is conducting its third United States field trial of an oral rabies vaccination (ONRAB). More than one million vaccination baits will be dropped in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire and Ohio to control rabies in raccoons, skunks and other wildlife. The first field test was in West Virginia in 2011, and promising results warranted expanding the testing of the vaccine into the other four states. The original West Virginia field trial was completed between 2011 and 2013. In 2014, a separate study is being conducted in West Virginia to further evaluate ONRAB by specifically targeting skunks using an alternative baiting strategy. Wildlife services personnel will sample raccoons and skunks in the study areas both prior, to and immediately following bait distribution to determine vaccination rates. The ONRAB vaccine field trial targeting skunks in southeastern West Virginia will encompass portions of Fayette, Greenbrier, Mercer, Monroe, Pocahontas, Raleigh and Summers counties.