The Texas Department of State Health Services re-launched its annual airdrop of rabies vaccine today for wildlife along the Texas-Mexico border in order to help protect people and animals from the deadly disease.
Planes took off today from the airport in Zapata to begin the process of dropping about one million rabies vaccine baits in wildlife habitat along a 25-mile-wide swath of the border from the Rio Grande Valley to Big Bend. Operations will move to Del Rio approximately Jan. 15, and to Alpine around Jan. 20.
The Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Program began in 1995, in response to major outbreaks of the canine strain of rabies in southern Texas and the gray fox type of rabies in western Texas. The outbreaks involved hundreds of animal cases, caused two human deaths and prompted thousands of costly post-exposure treatments to prevent rabies in people.
The ORVP was created to address the problem of vaccinating large numbers of coyotes and foxes across vast areas of Texas. In 1995, vaccine baits were first dropped from aircraft over areas of southern Texas where wildlife would eat them and become vaccinated. West Texas was added to the flights the next year. Cases of the canine strain in Texas fell to zero in 2000, and the fox strain dropped to zero in 2010, though there have been occasional, single cases since.
“The Oral Rabies Vaccination Program has successfully controlled both of these strains of rabies in Texas,” said Dr. Laura Robinson, ORVP director. “The goal now is to prevent them from being reintroduced into Texas by vaccinating wildlife migrating into the state.”
Doses of rabies vaccine are contained in small plastic packets coated with fishmeal crumbles to make it attractive for wildlife to eat. The vaccine has proven safe in more than 60 species of animals and is not a danger to humans, but people should avoid handling the vaccine baits because human contact makes it less likely wild animals will eat them. Dogs, cats and livestock that eat the vaccine are not considered vaccinated against rabies.
Rabies is a deadly virus spread through the saliva of infected animals, usually by a bite. Preventing rabies is critical because once a person or animal displays symptoms, the disease is almost always fatal.
While the aerial vaccination program has been successful in eliminating some types of rabies, there were more than 750 animal cases of rabies in 2016, and bats and skunks remain significant carriers of the disease in Texas. Immunizing domestic animals is crucial to stopping the spread of rabies. DSHS urges everyone to have their pets vaccinated as required by law.