Katie Krancevich just moved to Pittsburgh last week, and she went on something of an unconventional tour of her new home Monday — one that probably left her smelling like fish.
Wearing latex gloves, Ms. Krancevich, 22, traveled in a minivan to North Fayette and began pitching what looked like small blocks out the passenger seat window into shrubbery, down catch basins and into yards.
To the raccoons the fish-scented bait was meant to attract, the blocks were food. To the incoming student at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, they were tools to vaccinate the masked animals against rabies.
According to the website of the Allegheny County Health Department, raccoon rabies is found throughout Pennsylvania. The disease is almost always fatal to both people and animals.
It spreads rapidly and infects large numbers of raccoons, often spreading to other wildlife and pets.
To address this problem, federal, state and county agencies are working to keep what the health department calls an “animal epidemic” from spreading farther westward.
Ms. Krancevich is one of several Pitt students and faculty members who are taking to the road this week to volunteer with the health department, which is distributing oral rabies vaccines countywide as part of its annual baiting program.
They are trekking to raccoon habitats to distribute the bait, which can “vaccinate a raccoon with just one bite,” said Bill Todaro, a medical entomologist with the health department. He was Ms. Krancevich’s escort Monday.
The fish meal bait is coated in fish oil to attract hungry raccoons.
The minivan Mr. Todaro was driving reeked of it.
“It smells so nice,” Mr. Todaro joked as he took to the road, equipped with a map of North Fayette and all the streets the pair hoped to hit. With 14 boxes in the back and 360 vaccines in each, there were more than 5,000 doses for them to distribute. The bait won’t harm pets, he said.
Ms. Krancevich hasn’t yet started her graduate classes at Pitt, but she dived headfirst into volunteering with the health department as part of a new community service initiative in the school’s epidemiology department called “Epi Gives Back.”
Ms. Krancevich, a recent biology graduate of Youngstown State University who lives in Squirrel Hill, is interested in zoonotic diseases — or diseases that animals can transmit to humans, such as rabies — so helping with the vaccine distribution was good experience.
Participants in “Epi Gives Back” began meeting in April and volunteered together for the first time in July. Ms. Krancevich heard about it through email.
Nancy W. Glynn, a research assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health and the group’s faculty sponsor, called the collaboration with the health department a “perfect” way for her students to serve the community. She earned her own Ph.D. in epidemiology from Pitt years ago.
“It’s just a way [for] our students ... to really have a hands-on opportunity to go into our neighborhoods and take care of the health of our community,” said Ms. Glynn, who was on the raccoon trail herself on Monday.
Madeline R. Conway: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1714 or on Twitter @MadelineRConway.