Unprecedented effort to ward off rabies spread in Omaha moves into new phase; no red flags so far

Sparked by stray kitten found to have a rabies variant not seen west of Appalachia

By: - November 1, 2023 8:27 pm

Raccoon that was trapped. vaccinated and released as part of the operation prompted by a kitten discovered in Douglas County to have a raccoon rabies variant not seen before in Nebraska. (Courtesy of Douglas County Health Department)

OMAHA — Another phase of an unprecedented local operation to prevent a wildlife rabies outbreak launched Wednesday — with some 18,000 oral vaccine bait packets being placed around Nebraska’s most populated county.

Spreading out across a 62-square-mile area of Douglas County to drop the two-inch sachets coated with a fishmeal attractant are investigators with county, state and federal governments.

Oral rabies vaccine bait to be distributed in Douglas County aims to help prevent any spread after a rabies variant not before found in Nebraska was discovered in a stray kitten. (Courtesy of Douglas County Health Department)

Raccoons are the target audience of the effort, which was sparked by the discovery last month — in a stray kitten — of a raccoon rabies variant never before seen in Nebraska. Officials said they may never know how the baby cat, believed to be less than 2 months old, contracted the disease.

‘Encouraging’ results so far

Distribution of the oral rabies vaccine packets, which is to occur most heavily Wednesday through Saturday, builds upon earlier and ongoing steps to trap, vaccinate and then release raccoons. Roadkill specimens also are being tested.

So far, none of the more than 650 animals or about 200 carcasses showed any sign of rabies, said Phil Rooney, spokesman for the County Health Department.

“It’s encouraging that we haven’t found rabies, but the vigilance will continue,” Rooney said.

The multi-tiered, multi-agency efforts to ward off a costly and dangerous rabies spread followed tests performed on the stray kitten, which had been taken in by an Omaha family. Results revealed a raccoon rabies virus not seen west of the Appalachian Mountains. County officials held a news conference Oct. 16 to discuss early steps.

“Since this strain of rabies hasn’t been found within 850 miles of here, it was vital to take quick action,” said Rooney.

Rabies strains found in Nebraska are in skunks and bats, he said. Because raccoons interact more with pets and are more commonplace in the state, concern was heightened.

Investigators aim to trap, vaccinate and release some 1,000 raccoons in Douglas County as part of the operation prompted by a kitten that had a raccoon rabies variant not seen before in Nebraska. (Courtesy of  Dougas County Health Department)

“The estimate is that if this variant becomes established, it results in six times the number of human exposures we currently see,” Rooney said. “There also is no natural boundary to prevent it from spreading to other states in the region.”

665 raccoons, some skunks, cats and a fox

As of Wednesday morning, the investigation led by the Douglas County Health Department and U.S. Department Of Agriculture’s Fish and Wildlife Services had produced no alarming findings. 

A goal was to trap and vaccinate about 1,000 raccoons, an amount that officials believe would help, along with the oral vaccine packets, to build an immunity in the raccoon population.

In addition to 665 raccoons, as of Wednesday roughly 35 skunks, three cats and one red fox had been lured and captured in the cage traps. Almost all were vaccinated and released.

Three of the raccoons were euthanized due to lesions, wounds or strange behavior, Rooney said. Three others were transferred to the Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, where one died, one was euthanized and another remains in the nursery.

Of the nearly 200 roadkill specimens examined so far, Rooney said, none has tested positive for rabies.

Rooney said the trapping likely is to continue a few more days, and that oral vaccine bait will be laid out  as long as through Nov. 15. 

Monitoring dead and suspicious animals will continue possibly into February, he said.

First time use in Nebraska

The oral vaccine bait, which resembles a restaurant mustard packet, is designed to attract wild animals such as raccoons, which eat the fishy-smelling bait and become vaccinated against rabies. 

While this is the first time oral rabies vaccine baits have been used in Nebraska, county health administrators said that more than 280 million doses have been safely spread in the eastern United States. 

A statement from County Health Director Lindsay Huse said the Raboral V-RG vaccine baits are safe for domestic dogs and cats and that humans and pets can’t get rabies from contact with the bait.

Area where a team is distributing oral rabies vaccine bait in the form of packets coated in a fishmeal attractant. (Courtesy of USDA and Douglas County Health Department)

A warning label on each packet advises people not to touch the bait and provides the rabies information line telephone number. 

The stakes are high to ensure rabies does not spread.

Caused by a virus that infects the central nervous system in mammals, rabies is almost always fatal if not treated.

Costs associated with detection, prevention and control of rabies exceed $600 million annually in the United States, according to Huse’s statement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90% of reported rabies cases in the country are in wildlife.

The county advises people to avoid contact with wildlife and to keep their pets’ rabies vaccinations current.


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.