Wednesday, 30 May 2018

How a Prairie-Dog Plague Vaccine Could Protect Ferrets (and Maybe People, Too)

By Nidhi Sharma, Live Science Contributor | May 21, 2018 03:30pm ET

Yes, there's a vaccine for the plague, one of the most notorious diseases known to humanity. But unfortunately, this vaccine isn't for humans — it's for prairie dogs.

This prairie-dog vaccine isn't new. In 2016, scientists used drones to drop vaccine-laced peanut-butter pellets onto prairie-dog colonies below.

Since 2016, however, the scientists — a team of collaborators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and researchers from the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) — have honed their vaccine distribution methods, using all-terrain vehicles in addition to drones to deliver the lifesaving drug to the prairie dogs. [10 Deadly Diseases That Hopped Across Species]

Plague is caused by the flea-borne bacterium Yersinia pestis. In prairie dogs and other rodents, the bacterium causes a disease called sylvatic plague; in humans, the same bacterium causes bubonic plague, which, if not treated with antibiotics, can be deadly.

But saving prairie dogs from the plague isn't the end goal of the vaccination program. Instead, the scientists are immunizing prairie dogswith the hope of protecting the rodents' primary predator: the endangered black-footed ferret.

The vaccine has been distributed "very specifically" to areas "where endangered, captive ferrets have been reintroduced into colonies with active prairie dog populations," said Katherine Richgels, the applied wildlife health research branch chief at the NWHC.

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