NCDHHS Highlights Oral Rabies Vaccination Program, Seeks Assistance to Ensure Continued Success

Raleigh

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Public Health and Graham, Macon and Swain County Health Departments are asking anyone in these three counties who sees odd or sick-acting raccoons, skunks or foxes to call their local animal control or health department for collection and rabies testing. The testing is part of a larger effort to support the Oral Rabies Vaccination zone.

For nearly 16 years, public health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services have collaborated to implement the Oral Rabies Vaccination (ORV) program. The ORV zone (or barrier) has been a highly successful program that was conceived and designed by the USDA to prevent the westward and northward spread of raccoon variant rabies. Information about the ORV zones in North Carolina and other states is available on the USDA website.

Beginning in late 2020, rabies cases in wildlife have been documented for the first time in Macon County, though it has been present in neighboring counties for years. This is significant for two reasons: 

  1. The population of raccoons in Macon County has never been exposed to the rabies, and they do not have any natural immunity. This means that additional cases are very likely to be identified.
  2. Macon County is immediately south of a gap in the ORV zone. This gap exists because it was believed the elevation of the Appalachian Mountains could not support a suitable population of raccoons to sustain rabies transmission. However, it is possible raccoons could use the relatively lower elevation of the Little Tennessee River valley to breach the ORV zone and lead to the spread of raccoon rabies west of the barrier, where it does not currently exist.

To determine if rabid animals are breaching the ORV zone, the USDA Wildlife Services has obtained a permit from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to trap and test animals in Macon, Graham and Swain Counties. Together, these local and federally directed testing efforts will help to inform the degree to which rabies may be expanding into the ORV zone gap. 

People in Graham, Macon and Swain counties are encouraged to support testing efforts by alerting their local animal control or health department of any odd or sick-acting raccoons (or skunks or foxes) in their area. Local animal control or environmental health officials will attempt to collect these animals — time and staff permitting. Testing of locally collected animals will be performed by the NC State Laboratory of Public Health.

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