Bath officials are considering dispersing bait laced with a rabies vaccine to combat an epidemic that has plagued the southern Midcoast for the past several years. The plan hinges on the cooperation of five neighboring towns. 

Bath’s Ad Hoc Rabies Committee on July 21 unveiled a plan that would disperse the vaccine via helicopters and land vehicles in the hope of inoculating racoons over the course of three to five years. 

Previously, baiting was rejected because of the lack of space available.  

However, this plan, crafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, may be effective if surrounding communities join, as animals tend to migrate across town lines. 

The USDA estimates it takes 400 square kilometers for baited vaccine to be effective, an area that would include Bath, West Bath, Harpswell, Brunswick, Topsham and Phippsburg. 

“It’s never been done in a municipal setting,” Bath City Manager Peter Owen said. “There are states though that have done it, and we look at Maryland where there is a group that’s done it and it has been going on for a number of years. We asked USDA if it was possible to try and come up with a program similar to theirs and they did.” 

The vaccine would be encased in a packet of solid fishmeal baits. The bait and vaccine is safe for dogs or cats to consume, but not effective as rabies treatment for household pets, according to the USDA. 

The Maine CDC and USDA already have an oral rabies vaccine program in northern Maine that National Rabies Management Program Coordinator Rich Chipman said has been successful  in slowing the spread of the raccoon rabies variant in that area.

 “The ORV program in Maine will continue as we begin to look at strategies to move and expand the ORV footprint that will eventually lead to raccoon rabies elimination in Maine and North America,” Chipman said.  

According to the USDA,  the raccoon vaccination program in the eastern United States has created a barrier against the westward spread of raccoon rabies into naïve raccoon populations beyond the Appalachian Mountains and across the western United States. 

Owen said that research for Bath’s plan began in January, following attacks by wild animals that began increasing in the southern Midcoast in 2018.  

There were 18 attacks in Bath alone in 2019-20. 

This year, Topsham has had three confirmed cases of rabies and Phippsburg has had one. Brunswick and Harpswell have also have had one case each. This year’s numbers were not available for Bath or West Bath. 

According to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, there were 76 rabies cases in Maine in 2016, 67 in 2017, 76 in 2018, 97 in 2019, 71 in 2020 and 29 so far in 2021. DHHS does not keep records on the number of attacks. 

The program would cost $150,000 a year, costing each community $25,000. 

Testing before and after the program to measure effectiveness and the amount of rabies costs about $45,000 and bait costs $31,000. The remainder of the $150,000 would go toward vehicles, including helicopters. 

The City Council must decide whether to move forward before reaching out to other communities. 

“If a community says no, I don’t know if we can just willy-nilly decide to drop stuff there even if we pay for it,” rabies committee member and City Council Chairperson Aaron Park said. “I would like to see other towns buy in before we move forward.” 

Officials from the other communities did not return requests comments by the Forecaster’s deadline. 

Owen said June 21 that he is concerned that the other towns may be deterred by costs, and that some other communities may have rules that, unlike Bath, allow residents to shoot wild animals.  He said that in West Bath, for example, $25,000 “is a lot of money.”

“Their look, maybe, is that if they don’t have a problem, why pay in?” Owen said. “This is the right thing to do, but my concern is that this will be really difficult to coordinate.” 

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