Rabies Vaccine Dropped from the Sky

Rabies Vaccine

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are only 2-4 human rabies cases in the US each year, but annual prevention costs are more than $300 million
  • The Texas Department of Health is using helicopters to spread 100,000 rabies vaccines for skunks in the wilderness; other states have also conducted similar vaccination efforts
  • No one knows if such programs are effective or if the indiscriminate spreading of a pharmaceutical product into the environment is going to have any unforeseen consequences to wildlife or the surrounding ecosystem

By Dr. Mercola

In 2009, there were just four human cases of rabies in the US. In 2010, there were two1… yet each year, the US spends more than $300 million for rabies prevention,2 which includes the vaccination of companion animals, animal control programs, maintenance of rabies laboratories and medical costs.

Even at the turn of the century, rabies-related human deaths only numbered around 100 annually, and by the 1990s, this had dropped to one or two.  While rabies is a serious, potentially deadly, illness, it is most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid wild animal – a risk factor that is negligible for many in the US.

Texas Department of Health Is Dropping Experimental Rabies Vaccines from the Sky

About 92 percent of the reported rabies cases in 2010 were in wild animals, including raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, rodents and others. This poses a theoretical risk not only to humans but also to family pets, which could then transmit rabies to their owners.

Nonetheless, human rabies cases remain extremely rare… but efforts are still underway to knock out the rabies virus in wild skunk populations in Texas.

The Texas Department of Health is actually using helicopters to spread 100,000 rabies vaccines in two counties. The vaccines, which are contained in plastic cases coated with fishmeal to entice wildlife to eat them, are part of a pilot program to help reduce the number of rabid skunks in the area.

No one knows yet if the program is going to work – skunks will need to be caught and tested for rabies 30-60 days after the vaccines are dropped – or if the indiscriminate spreading of a pharmaceutical product into the environment is going to have any unforeseen consequences to wildlife or the surrounding ecosystem.

Should Wildlife Be Vaccinated Against a Disease That Infects 2-4 People a Year?

It’s also unclear why Texas is taking such aggressive measures against rabies. There has so far been only one reported case of human rabies in Texas in 2013, and the man was exposed in Guatemala, Mexico -- not in Texas. The last case of human rabies in Texas prior to that was in 2009 and prior to that in 2004 – for a total of just 6 human cases in the last decade.3

For comparison, there were 2,390 cases of campylobacteriosis in Texas in 2012 alone… an illness largely spread by contaminated poultry raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This illness, too, can be deadly if it infects a person with a compromised immune system, yet we’re not hearing about widespread efforts to curb its transmission…

Even if you factor in data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which states there were 6,153 reported cases of rabies in animals in 2010, that’s for animals in the entire US, and not only skunks but also raccoons, foxes, bats and others. Texas isn’t the only state to opt for preventative rabies vaccination of wildlife, either. According to the Human Society of the United States (HSUS):4

“Federal and state wildlife officials have been vaccinating wildlife in many regions over the past 15 years. They distribute vaccine-laden baits that the target animals eat and thereby vaccinate themselves. Right now, oral rabies vaccination of wildlife focuses on halting the spread of specific types of rabies in targeted carrier species. Next, it’s hoped that this tool can shrink the diseases’ range.”

The end question remains the same, not only for Texas but for the entire US: is it really necessary to spend $300 million a year on rabies prevention… and what are the potential consequences of vaccinating wildlife?

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What Exactly Is Rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease that most often enters your body through a bite or wound contaminated by the saliva from an infected animal. If it manages to infect the central nervous system, it can lead to early symptoms that include fever, headache, weakness and discomfort. As the disease progresses, it can lead to insomnia, anxiety, confusion, paralysis, hallucinations, difficulty swallowing, fear of water and death.

If you have been bitten by a wild animal (or a dog with unknown rabies status), wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, as this will help to decrease your risk of infection.

Next, talk to a doctor about your next steps. He or she will probably contact the local or state health department and, if it’s deemed that the animal was rabid or at high risk of being rabid, you may need to start postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), which consists of a series of vaccines that can protect you from developing rabies. But remember, though rabies is serious, and frightening, it’s extremely rare. HSUS puts it into perspective:

Given all the media attention that rabies regularly receives, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that very few people die from rabies nationwide each year. Over the past 10 years, rabies has killed only a total of 28 people in the U.S. This amounts to fewer than 3 fatalities a year nationwide.

People who contracted rabies in the United States were mostly infected by a bat. Most didn’t even know they were bitten. Some may have been sleeping when bitten. Others handled a bat bare-handed without realizing they’d been potentially exposed to rabies. But don’t panic over every bat sighting. Less than one-half of one percent of all bats in North America carries rabies. Although raccoons suffer from rabies more than any other mammal in the United States (about 35 percent of all animal rabies cases), only one human death from the raccoon strain of rabies has been recorded in the United States.”

What About Rabies Vaccines for Pets?

If you’re wondering about the rabies vaccine for your dog or cat, Mercola Healthy Pets with Dr. Karen Becker has a wealth of information. In many states, you can choose either a 1-year or 3-year rabies vaccine for your pet. If you choose a 1-year shot, or if your state doesn’t offer a 3-year vaccine, the annual protocol is required by law.

If you have a pet and are not subscribed yet to Dr. Becker’s awesome newsletter, you are doing your pet a serious disservice, as her information is priceless. She simply is one of the best natural vets in the world. For a very informative interview with renowned veterinary vaccine expert Dr. Ronald Schultz, see the video below: “Does Your Pet Really Need That Rabies Shot?