Miami-Dade County has begun distributing more than a quarter million packets of smelly bite-sized packets containing a liquid rabies vaccine. They’re designed for wildlife to sniff out and eat, which could help ward off another rabies outbreak this year.
The decision to disperse the vaccine, coated in fish-meal, was made after 11 animals in the county — eight raccoons, two cats and an otter at the Deering Estate — tested positive for rabies last year. The otter, which was later captured, actually bit someone who was forced to undergo painful rabies treatments. At one point, both ends of the county were under formal rabies alerts.
“We’re trying to protect domestic animals and people,” said Miami-Dade Animal Services assistant director Kathy Labrada.
Miami-Dade wound up accounting for 10 percent of all the rabies cases statewide last year. That spike prompted health experts to try an approach that has been used in a number of other communities and states.
Animal control workers will scatter the packets — a product called Raboral V-RG — around garbage cans or other areas where urban and suburban wildlife commonly scavenge. It has, according to the county and other wildlife control and health agencies, proved effective elsewhere. But it does come with some concerns: Though uncommon, it can be a danger to pets. Health workers recommend that humans put on gloves before coming into contact with discarded or ruptured packets. And there is no plan in place for picking up the hundreds of thousands of plastic packets that are being placed strategically around the county.
“Unless your dog has an open wound, it can’t be exposed to it,” Labrada said. “And I share your concerns about the bait [causing pollution], that merits a response.”
The way it works: The fish-meal attracts the animal, which bites down and through the plastic, releasing the liquid vaccine. Health workers said cats aren’t strong enough to puncture the plastic and that the vaccine poses little threat to dogs.
Labrada called the distribution of the rabies vaccine “a great plan” and said the only way the disease can be passed along to domesticated pets is if a rabid animal leaves infected saliva on a packet and it comes into contact with a pet’s open wound.
Animal Service workers with help from other government departments began distributing the square packets on Monday, a process that will continue for the next two weeks. Plans call for another round in June and December of 2020, Labrada said.
Raboral V-RG has worked in a number of places including in Texas, New York, Tennessee and Massachusetts, according to the company’s website. Cape Cod, which hasn’t had a recent outbreak, used the vaccine last fall to control an outbreak. United States Department of Agriculture biologist Brian Bjorkland told CapeCod.com that the bait is “largely” not harmful to people, but “if people come across the baits we ask them to wash their hands with soap and hot water” and to contact the department of health.
Miami-Dade’s most recent rabies outbreaks began in May last year when several raccoons in a wooded area south of Zoo Miami tested positive. In September and October, two cats were discovered with the disease in the northeast quadrant of the county. And in January of this year another raccoon, also by Zoo Miami, turned up infected.
In each instance the county chose to issue an alert, asking residents to keep their pets indoors and sending out information on the best way to deal with wild animals. An alert lasts two months. If another animal is found with the disease inside the two-month window, the period gets extended. As of this week, no areas in Miami-Dade were under a rabies alert.
Labrada said after the plan to distribute the vaccine in Miami-Dade was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Health and a group called the Florida Rabies Advisory Committee recommended it for Miami-Dade. That’s when her agency signed off.
Most of the information available about the vaccine comes from Raboral’s website, which says the drug has been tested safe for more than 50 species of animal. It can only be sold to government entities. If bait is found near a home, local health officials should be contacted. And anyone under 18, who is pregnant or suffers from a suppressed immune system should not come in contact with the vaccine.
Still, Labrada says as hard as her agency works to vaccinate and release feral animals, it can’t possibly get to the 400,000 cats throughout the county that aren’t pets.
“It decreases the likelihood that domestic animals will be exposed,” she said.