Health Department vaccinates NYC raccoons
against rabies

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

The presence of rabid raccoons found in Manhattan has heightened media aware- ness of these animals and the disease. What is happening with the raccoons around town and how is the city planning on dealing with this?

On February 4 of 2010, I spoke with with NYC Health Department veterinarian and public health expert in communicable diseases, Dr. Sally Slavinski.

Records show that in May of 2005 The State of New York conducted an oral rabies vaccine program in eastern Queens to help control raccoon rabies outbreaks in Nassau County. When asked if other programs had been done since then, Dr. Slavinski indicated that there had been no other programs, explaining that rabies was first found in NYC in 1992. Rabid raccoons were found in Manhattan in 1993 but not seen again until 2009 (12 rabid raccoons were reported for the entire year of 2009 and 6 as of 1/14/2010). Dr. Slavinski pointed out that in general human or companion animal incidents with raccoons have been very rare in NYC. The infected raccoons identified in New York County, were found ill, injured or dead.

Asked whether the City will conduct an oral rabies vaccine program in response to the increase in rabies cases, Dr. Slavinski noted that the Health Department is currently planning a program to utilize an injectable vaccine (which the city considers to be more effective) targeting the raccoon populations in Central Park, Morningside Park and Riverside Park. In order to be as effective (or more) as the oral vaccine the injectable one must inoculate the same or a greater number of raccoons. The injectable rabies vaccine necessitates live trapping to administer where the oral vaccine would not. The doctor stressed the department’s policy of respect for all wildlife and verified that humane trapping procedures will be followed in all programs.

Questioned about reported raccoon sightings on adjacent grounds to East Harlem's Thomas Jefferson Park, Dr. Slavinski responded that the City would expand the program if necessary.

Issues as to the most effective timing of the vaccine programs were raised. Studies have shown that city raccoons tend to live closer to each other and to travel less than their rural counterparts thanks to abundant food sources found in urban areas, however, some mothers will shift locations with their young in summer months. Dr. Slavinski noted that the intended vaccine programs should utilize seasons when the raccoons were most concentrated in one area, such as the winter and the spring as well as the summer when there might be more movement. Efforts to implement the programs as soon as possible are in the works.

Raccoons are highly susceptible to and carry canine distemper. Like rabies, canine distemper affects the central nervous system and symptoms of both diseases are similar. When asked if an observer could tell the difference in an infected raccoon, Dr. Slavinski noted that there is no way to differentiate, adding, however, that canine distemper has not been found to date in the Manhattan raccoon population.

Raccoons are also known to carry roundworms. But, a 2008 study of Chicago raccoons showed that the urban raccoons carried significantly less of the parasites than their country cousins (this is thought to be due to city raccoons consuming fewer small animals that might harbor the worms). Dr. Slavinski was not familiar with similar studies on NYC raccoons but did note that the opportunity for further study did exist.

The City of New York is working on dealing with the presence of rabies in our raccoons in the best possible manner. Citizens can contribute to the effort by educating themselves on co-existing with urban wildlife.

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