Essex County leaders worried about rabies

ELIZABETHTOWN – Essex County lawmakers hope greater public awareness about rabies will curb the growing number of cases here.

At Monday’s Ways and Means Committee meeting, Dr. Bryan Cherry, a veterinarian with the state Department of Health, addressed supervisors about rabies concerns in the northern end of the county and how to fight the problem. In 2012, Essex County logged the most reports of rabid raccoons in its history, Cherry explained.

“And that certainly is a concern to us, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” he said.

Cherry said that in New York, rabies – a viral disease – is primarily associated with raccoons, although it’s also common in bats. The raccoon variant of rabies has been traced back to a case in Florida in the 1950s, Cherry said. It stayed in Florida and Georgia for many years, he said, and then began spreading north to states like Virginia and West Virginia, possibly because of hunting patterns.

“From there, we watched rabies move up and down the East Coast of the United States every year,” Cherry said.

Rabid raccoons first arrived in New York state in 1990, according to Cherry. Nearly every county in the state has records of rabid raccoons, except for Franklin and Hamilton counties. Cherry said raccoons tend to avoid high elevations, and it’s uncommon for them to migrate across mountain ranges like the Adirondacks. That, he said, may be why Hamilton County and the southern parts of Essex County haven’t logged as many reports of rabid raccoons.

Franklin County has a low raccoon density to begin with, Cherry said, and the USDA has been active in preventing rabies there, especially near the Canadian border.

“St. Lawrence County, Jefferson County – up all the way to Canton and beyond – that is where the USDA has been for years and years applying these vaccine-laden baits to try and vaccinate the raccoon population,” he said.

Rabid raccoons pose a big threat to public health because they are active and social, Cherry said.

“They will interact with people, they will interact with pets, they will come for your trash, they will come for your barbecue,” he said. “And this becomes problematic because people like to engage raccoons, and they’re willing to feed them, and they think it’s very cute. And that actually helps propagate the raccoon population; it also brings them closer to people and their pets. That leads to more and more interaction and greater chance of rabies getting spread.”

Attempts to completely wipe out the rabies virus in the North Country haven’t been successful, Cherry said. State and federal vaccination efforts generally rely on bait drops: A vaccine known as V-RG is placed in plastic packets, which are then wrapped in bait and dropped from helicopters.

This past year, USDA started trying a different bait called ONRAB, which Cherry said has a different vaccine that seems to work better.

“But all of that still remains to be seen,” he said. “Wildlife rabies vaccination is a great idea. It has some potential, but we still need better techniques and better vaccines that can effectively vaccinate raccoons.”

The town of Jay and the downtown AuSable Forks area have been a hot spot for confirmed cases of rabid raccoons. Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas said he’s frustrated because he’s heard that state and federal vaccination efforts were aimed at preventing rabid raccoons from moving back and forth across the Canadian border.

“I was looking at it on the flip side of that thinking, ‘Why aren’t we trying to prevent it from getting into Essex County?'” he said. “It’s a major issue in my town: skunks, raccoons, feral cats.

“My concern is, is where do we go from here? Did the governor cut some of this money out of the budget for bait drops?”

Cherry said the USDA has worked aggressively in northern Essex County and Clinton County to keep rabid raccoons from moving north into Canada, mainly because if rabies spreads in Canada, it could eventually move back into counties like St. Lawrence and Franklin. But Douglas said the barrier hasn’t worked.

“I have skunks running through my business district,” he said.

Cherry said vaccination efforts are pointless unless the public takes steps to avoid coming into contact with raccoons. He said summer visitors need to stop feeding raccoons because they think they’re cute. He added that increasing feral cat populations are also a problem because those cats will come into contact with rabid raccoons, and then humans will handle the cats.

Other strategies include:

-Vaccinating pets

-Spaying and neutering feral cats

-Not handling wildlife

-Trash control

-Educating the public about what to do when exposed to a rabid animal.

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or