Northern Maine continues to see fewer cases of wildlife-related rabies than other parts of the state, and health officials want to keep it that way.

Starting this week, the United States Department of Agriculture’s animal and plant health inspection service is teaming up with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Agriculture Department to distribute 125,000 oral rabies vaccination baits in northeast Aroostook County.

The distribution area covers 900 square miles and includes Caribou, Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield, Ashland and Mapleton, The program is expected to run Aug. 15-23.

“We have been doing this for a number of years with the USDA,” Dr. Stephen Sears, state epidemiologist, said Monday. “This has proven to be a pretty efficient strategy to get the vaccines to wildlife.”

The distribution efforts specifically target raccoons and the fish-meal-coated bait pellets will be distributed by air and from the ground.

“The vaccine is in a fish packet and it’s made to be attractive to raccoons,” Sears said. “We want to stop the spread of rabies by raccoons in Aroostook County.”

Vaccines will be distributed by air in rural wooded areas and from vehicles in more populated areas.

Rabies is more prevalent in southern portions of the state where, according to Sears, 60 cases already have been reported for the year.

“We have not had any reports of rabies associated with northern Maine this year,” he said. “But we are pretty saturated in southern Maine.”

Rabies does pose a serious health threat to humans and can be fatal, Sears said.

The baits are coated with fishmeal and are distributed in 1-inch square cubes or 2-inch plastic packets, Sears said.

Humans and pets cannot get rabies from contact with the baits but should leave them undisturbed should they encounter them.

If contact with baits occurs, immediately rinse the area affected with warm water and soap, he said.

The vaccine has been shown to be safe in more than 60 different species of animals, including domestic dogs and cats, but dogs that consume large numbers of baits may experience an upset stomach.

“It’s not unusual for a dog to pick one up and bring it home,” Sears said.

This is the ninth year the USDA has dispensed the oral vaccines and Sears said this new batch is targeted toward raccoons that may have not eaten any in previous years.

“We really do not know how long [the vaccine] is good for,” he said. “But it is probably very effective over the long haul.”

Foxes, which also can carry rabies, more than likely will consume some of the vaccine as well, Sears said.

For information on the raccoon oral rabies vaccine program, call 1-866-4-USDA-WS (1-866-487-3297).

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.