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The Raccoon Rabies Epidemic

An intense and widespread rabies outbreak presently affects raccoon populations across the US eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida. The raccoon rabies outbreak reached New York from the south in 1990, and has continued to spread so that now nearly the entire state is affected.

This wildlife rabies problem first emerged in Florida in the early 1950's, and spread to its current distribution at a steady rate of 10-20 miles per year, augmented by a few "jumps" of greater distances resulting from the long-distance movement of infected raccoons by human activities.

The great majority of cases in New York have occurred in raccoons, but the disease also has been transmitted by infected raccoons to a wide variety of other wild mammals and unvaccinated domestic animals. A list of confirmed rabid animals by species is available at this site.

Positive Cases The number of laboratory-confirmed rabid animals in the state increased dramatically as the outbreak spread across the state, reaching 2,747 in 1993, the greatest single-state annual total in the history of the United States.

When raccoon rabies invades an area, there are increasing numbers of cases for a 1 -2 year period, followed by diminished numbers of rabid animals as the raccoon population wanes due to the rabies-related mortality. Periodic flare-ups occur as raccoon populations rebound locally (approximately 5 year cycles).

The raccoon rabies outbreak is extremely costly, due increased expenditures for traditional rabies control activities such as pet and livestock vaccination programs, laboratory testing, animal control activities, and public education preventive measures. The greatest outbreak-related increase in expenditures has been a consequence of a tremendous increase in the number of human rabies exposures requiring rabies postexposure vaccinations. At approximately $1,000.00 per person treated, the increase from the pre-outbreak average of 100 per year to greater than 2,500 treatments per year is costing New Yorkers more than $2 million annually.

New York State has been a leader in the conduct of field trials to develop novel methods of wildlife rabies control, such as the distribution of vaccine-laden baits to immunize raccoon populations to interrupt and extinguish the rabies outbreak.