In response to ongoing problems with rabies in raccoons in New York’s Central Park, a vaccination program is now underway. Raccoons are being trapped, vaccinated, tagged and then released. This is a logical response to the outbreak and one that will hopefully have a significant impact.
Trap, vaccinate and release programs can help in a few different ways. Firstly, they protect the individual raccoons that are vaccinated. However, in the bigger picture, mass vaccination is designed to protect humans and animals beyond those that are vaccinated (this is referred to as "herd immunity" – click here for a good video about this concept from a previous post). As the number of vaccinated (and therefore immune) individuals in a population increases, there’s less risk of ongoing transmission of the disease (in this case, rabies), since an infected animal is less likely to encounter a susceptible (unvaccinated) individual. If, on average, an infected individual does not have a chance to infect another individual, the outbreak will eventually die out. The key is getting a high enough percentage of the population vaccinated.
For eradication of dog rabies, the World Health Organization recommends vaccinating at least 70% of dogs in a population. I’m not sure what the critical number is for raccoons, but it’s presumably a similar, and reasonably high, number. Since a high vaccination rate is needed, there needs to be a concerted effort to do more than just a token vaccination program. It also helps if there’s good information about raccoon numbers and distribution in the area. As long as the Department of Health is serious about this program and puts the required time and resources into it, the odds are very good that it will be successful.