Skunk Rabies Research
There are two main parts to the testing: testing to provide data to allow the USDA to approve the rabies vaccine for use in skunks and testing to provide data to allow the CDC to determine a quarantine period.
The vaccine testing will involve vaccinating a set of skunks and holding them for a year and then testing the vaccine by injecting the skunks with the rabies virus to see if the vaccine protects them against the virus.
The quarantine testing involves giving a set of skunks the rabies virus and monitoring them closely to see how and when the virus reacts in skunks. (The skunks are humanely euthanized once enough symptoms of the disease are apparent.)
After the testing is done for each part, all the data will have to be written up and submitted to the appropriate government agencies for review. The agencies may choose to send back more questions that would require further testing before they can make their recommendations. So we are trying to be very careful to cover as many angles as possible up front so that we minimize the need for retesting. (It is quite common for further testing to be required so while we hope to minimize it, we may not be able to eliminate the need completely.)
We have tried to simplify the testing explanation since it can get quite complicated when we start talking about details.
We are in the process of breaking down the expenses directly related to the vaccine portion of the testing. Rough estimates indicate that the vaccine testing will cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000. The largest expenses will be holding the skunks in a facility acceptable to the USDA for a year and the lab costs for the actual testing phase. We are still researching and breaking down these costs.
The other major area of testing to determine the quarantine period has been estimated at around $ 665,000. This testing is expensive because a set of skunks will need to be tested with each of the common rabies variants to make sure that skunks don't react differently based on the variant. According to the CDC, there are currently 9 variants that will need to be tested. This test will have to be broken into three phases (testing different sets of rabies variants each year) since the lab that has agreed to hold and test the skunks cannot handle the entire volume in a single year.
We have been working with various facilities and organizations in order to get services or supplies donated for this testing. So far, we have been able to get commitments (some verbal, some in writing) and have been able to cut down the amount of cash needed this way. At this point, we have well over half of the quarantine testing costs covered by donations of services and supplies by these organizations. We are now applying for grants to help cover the remainder.
The biggest question regarding timing is the amount of time it will take to acquire the money to START the testing. We have broken the testing down into self-contained components wherever possible in order to make it easier to pay for the testing in chunks. However, we cannot begin any segment of the testing until we have the money to complete that segment. For example, if we acquire the skunks and vaccinate them and then run out of money after they have been held for 6 months, then all that work and expense will have to be repeated later with a new set of skunks. This testing is very expensive so we can't afford to repeat any of it due to bad planning. However, we do have to keep in mind that unexpected testing may need to be done after the initial phase of these tests are complete.
The vaccine manufacturer will not be able to recoup these large expenses from pet skunk owners later. They run a business, not a non-profit, and simply cannot justify the expense to their shareholders and board of directors. However, they are willing to help in many ways that will save us very large sums of money. They have already assisted greatly by introducing us to various people and organizations that can help us. Their introduction gave us the credibility we needed to get our foot in the door, that otherwise, would have been much more difficult. They have already provided quite a bit of advice that has streamlined our research process. They have also agreed to help in many other similar ways once we get further along in the testing process. So they ARE participating and have been a great help to us so far.
The government is concerned about saving human lives, first and foremost. They have a very effective, and less costly way of doing this right now. They can quickly and inexpensively require the testing of a single skunk in a bite situation. Obviously, this poses the biggest problem to us as skunk lovers. However, the government has no need to expend the money necessary to protect the life of the skunk. WE are the ones who care about the lives of these skunks, so it falls to us to provide an alternative method of protecting the human population. Many states have taken the additional step of prohibiting the ownership of skunks as pets to minimize the requirement of testing skunks. In their view, this is an even cheaper and better method of protecting its citizens. They have no reason to fund the testing.
If you look at it from another point of view, how many of us would be interested in paying higher taxes to fund testing of exotic species of animals that we DO NOT own and have no plans to own? This would be what we would be asking all non-skunk owners everywhere to do if we expect them to pay for the testing needed for OUR pets. We have to look at all sides of the issue to understand the big picture.
In areas where rabies becomes a concern for the wild populations, government agencies are allowed to use the vaccine off label to control the spread of rabies. As an example, in 2001 there was a small outbreak of skunk rabies in Flagstaff, AZ and they chose to do a trap, vaccinate, and release program with the skunks in that area to stop the spread. This program appears to have worked. However, they had no proof in advance that this was a good program to implement. So it was somewhat experimental. Having the rabies vaccine approved would be useful for situations like this, but it's not enough of a plus for the government to foot the bill when they can continue to use the vaccine off-label.
As the ferret people discovered, much to their dismay, having the rabies vaccine alone does not prevent the death of the animal in a bite situation. The vaccine gives the government the ability to assume that there is a possibility that the animal does not have rabies. Since protecting human life is the top priority, they also need to watch the animal to make sure that their assumption is correct. But with no quarantine period defined, how long do you watch them? Rabies can only be prevented very early in the life cycle of the disease. Once symptoms show up, it is too late. So there is a small window of time before someone would need to start the post-exposure rabies series.
This testing is even more important with skunks than with most other species, since skunks are a rabies vector species. Many people believe that skunks carry rabies. That word "carry" is usually used in a way that indicates that a skunk can run around and bite people who will be infected with rabies without the skunk ever showing symptoms of the disease and dying. I have actually seen this printed on website material maintained by government agencies.
According to the CDC, an animal cannot live long after shedding the rabies virus and the virus cannot be passed on unless it is being shed. (This stage happens near the end of the disease's life cycle). Most animals are dead within 7 days of shedding the rabies virus. The quarantine period was set to 10 days for dogs, cats and ferrets, to make absolutely certain the virus is not present. We need to scientifically determine just what the time frame is for skunks before a quarantine period can be determined. At this point, we do not know and cannot prove whether or not that time frame is the same in skunks as in other species who have already been tested. With the reputation that skunks have in this area, that just makes this testing that much more important for us.
People have suggested over the years that signing a petition or writing to one's congressman or senator can get the laws changed regarding the death of a skunk in a bite situation. In fact, when we got started in this effort, several of us thought the same thing. However, through research over time, we have discovered that this is not the answer. While this may work to get laws changed regarding the legality of OWNING a pet skunk in states that are not currently legal, IT IS NOT UP TO THE STATES to decide what to do if a skunk bites someone. That decision comes out of federal organizations (in this case, the Rabies Compendium) set up to determine the safest route to take in the event of human health incidents. Their recommendation, in all situations involving a species that does not have an approved vaccine or quarantine period is testing the animal.
Once we have met all the testing required for them to change the policies regarding skunks, they will make a ruling and THEN it is up to the states to change their policies to adopt the new methods available.
So a time will come when signing petitions and writing to one's state representative may be useful. But at this point in time, they are powerless to make changes in saving the life of a skunk that bites.