Cape Cod Is Raccoon Rabies-free for 5 Years and Counting

May 3, 2018

Erika Woods, co-chair of the Cape Cod Rabies Taskforce with a box of rabies vaccines.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

Rabies vaccination for raccoons has begun on the Cape. It's part of a bi-annual effort run by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Cape Cod Rabies Taskforce to keep rabies in check. 

Back in 2004, the Cape had a rabies outbreak that spread all the way to Provincetown. The Cape Cod Rabies Taskforce, in conjunction with the USDA, devised a baiting plan that was successfully able to eradicate raccoon rabies by dropping vaccination baits. This month marks the fifth year the Cape has been raccoon rabies-free, in part due to baiting efforts by the two organizations. 

Erika Woods, co-chair of the Cape Cod Rabies Taskforce takes me on a ridealong to bait in forested areas around Plymouth. The taskforce and the USDA have been working to eradicate rabies by slowly moving a "barrier" of vaccinations forward starting from Provincetown until they made it to the Sagamore and Bourne bridges. These days, now that this strain of rabies is no longer active on the Cape, they bait in a 10-mile area around the bridges, on the mainland and Cape-side. 

Each bait pack has a crumbly coating outside that smells strong to attract raccoons. Woods and other members of the baiting team will throw hundreds of these a day into the woods for the next few weeks, in hopes that raccoons looking for food will bite into one. When raccoons bite into a bait, a packet containing the vaccine will burst open and vaccinate the animal. 

Dr. Katherine Brown, the State Veterinarian with the Department of Public Health, says the Cape is an ideal place to test rabies containment strategies. This recent strategy of creating a "barrier" of baiting has worked for the Cape, and she says other places in Massachusetts are also looking at this strategy to contain their rabies populations. 

"Part of what has been happening here is this proof of concept," Brown said. There’s always been a question of can we actually eradicate raccoon rabies once it’s arrived in an area, and the Cape is actually a perfect place for us to look at that because we have this natural geographic barrier." 

The East Coast has the highest incidence in the country of raccoon rabies. Bat-strain rabies still exists on the Cape, but there is no way to vaccinate against that. The task force will bait through April on the mainland side of the bridges, and on the Cape side through May.