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Aircraft to drop experimental marshmallow-flavored rabies vaccines for raccoons in Tennessee

Crews will fly over Tennessee's rural wilderness dropping rabies vaccine packets coated with bait in hopes the raccoons will eat them.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Flight crews will soon take to the skies above rural Tennessee and other states in an effort to prevent the spread of rabies in wild raccoons. 

The Tennessee Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services announced there will be another round of raccoon rabies vaccine airdrops in October targeting areas along Tennessee's state lines with Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Low-flying helicopters and aircraft will be dropping bait packets that contain an oral rabies vaccine wrapped in fish meal in hopes of preventing the spread of the deadly virus.

"Controlling raccoon rabies keeps people, pets, and livestock safe,” said Dr. John Dunn, Tennessee's state epidemiologist. “We’re pleased to partner with USDA Wildlife Services in this program to reduce rabies in wildlife and protect the community.”

The USDA said it will also continue field testing an experimental rabies vaccine that's wrapped in a green, marshmallow-flavored coating. Roughly 3.5 million doses of the vaccine Onrab will be distributed alongside the approved fish meal-wrapped vaccine in parts of rural Tennessee, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press. 

The Onrab vaccine has been in the field testing phase for many years to determine its effectiveness and environmental impact. The USDA has been distributing the vaccine to raccoons in Ohio as part of an ongoing field evaluation, saying it has successfully reduced the prevalence of the raccoon rabies variant it targets in the state.

Helicopters will fly near urban areas in Tennessee, from Oct. 3 to Oct. 11, including in Greene and Hawkins counties. From Oct. 6 to Oct. 15, aircraft will be flying around rural sections, including McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and Rhea counties.

The aircraft's navigator will be operating a machine that distributes the bait to avoid dropping packets on roads, structures or large bodies of water. The USDA said the bait packets are safe, but advises people to take some precautions if they come across one.

  • Bait packets should be removed from where your pet could easily find and eat them.
  • If you or your pet finds a bait packet, confine your pet and look for other baits in the area. Wear gloves or use a towel to toss the bait packet into a wooded or fencerow area.
  • Do not try to remove a bait packet from your pet’s mouth, as you could be bitten.
  • If eaten, one bait packet won’t harm your pet, but consuming several might upset your pet’s stomach.
  • The bait packets will have a strong, fishmeal smell. Even though there is no harm in touching undamaged bait packets, always wear gloves or use a towel whenever you pick up a bait packet.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if the bait packet has ruptured.
  • Instruct children to leave bait packets alone.
  • A warning label on each bait packet advises people not to touch the bait, and contains the rabies information line telephone number.

The airdrops will happen in other states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Maine, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

ORV bait distribution by fixed-wing aircraft will be based out of Abingdon, Virginia and Dalton, GA, to include portions of Alleghany, Ashe, Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Swain, Transylvania, Wilkes and Yancey counties, according to the USDA.

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