Rabies vaccine drop underway, with hopes dramatic effect continues

Rabies vaccine has started falling from the sky again, and provincial veterinarian Dr. Jim Goltz says it's having the desired effect on raccoons, skunks and foxes.

New Brunswick begins dropping vaccine packs on rural areas and spreading them around 2 cities

Provincial veterinarian Dr. Jim Goltz shows the rabies vaccine being spread across southwestern New Brunswick. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Rabies vaccine has started falling from the sky again, and  provincial veterinarian Dr. Jim Goltz says it's working.

The sweet-smelling bait packs are being dropped from aircraft in western New Brunswick, from the northern border of Carleton County down to Black's Harbour on the Bay of Fundy, to help stop the spread of rabies among foxes, raccoons and skunks.

In Saint John and Fredericton, the vaccine will be strewn about by hand near hedges and dumpsters.

"We're hoping that the rabies incursion will be contained within the area where we've been doing our vaccine bait drops," Goltz said in an interview.

But already, the vaccine ONRAB, in its third year of action, has brought a dramatic decrease in rabies cases, Goltz said.

The bait drop began in 2014 when 24 cases were recorded in New Brunswick. In 2016, there was one case, and this year, the province is aware of three cases, all in skunks in the St. Stephen area.

"We'll just hope that this trend continues," Goltz said. "We'll hope that we don't get new cases in, and they don't go beyond areas where we have been vaccinating."

Unfortunately, he said, rabid animals sometimes hitchhike on the vehicles of unknowing drivers and end up outside the target zone for the vaccine drop.

This is partly why the vaccine packs will also be spread around Fredericton and Saint John, "as sort of pillars for further preventive action," Goltz said.

Half the capital city has already been littered with the vaccine, which comes in a tan-coloured blister pack made from ingredients such as marshmallow, sugar and fat  — all things the animals love.

The yellow 300 Twin Otter aircraft and its payload, some 18,000 flavoured packs of ONRAB rabies vaccine. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

The province will continue dumping the vaccine this week and into next week, with help from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative of Prince Edward Island, municipalities and First Nations communities.

Enjoying wildlife – at a distance

Raccoons are one of the three target animals for the vaccine. Skunks and fox will also be protected against rabies if they consume the vaccine. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

Goltz said the vaccine packs, which smell of maple or vanilla, depending on who's asked, do not pose a risk to pets or humans.

And the packets are well-camouflaged.

"We've done studies where we've actually just tossed them out and then asked people if they could see where the baits were, and most of the time when they're tossed out, people can't see them," he said.

"And most people, their sniffers aren't good enough to sniff them out, but dogs and cats can certainly find them. … No animal that eats it could get rabies."

Goltz's biggest concern is that people stay safe around wildlife. They should get their pets vaccinated and be sure to leave wild animals where they are found.

Diseases carried by animals will move where the animals move, so "if you do capture wild animals, don't move them from one location to another," he said.

"We hope people will enjoy wildlife, but at a distance."