For some two weeks this month, a Texas agency took to the skies over long stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border. The reason: to drop rabies vaccines to help vaccinate the region’s wildlife. The aerial drops are part of an effort to reduce the spread of the virus in the state.
Out along rural stretches outside Alpine, Texas, small airplanes are hovering overhead. From the belly of the planes, tiny fast-food-sized packets will speed to the ground. Their contents: rabies vaccines for the region’s wildlife.
The vaccine drops are part of a state program aimed at stopping rabies in its tracks, says Doctor Laura Robinson with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“So we’re maintaining this barrier zone along the border so we have an immunized population of foxes and coyotes in case there are animals South of the border that are infected with these rabies variants or other rabies variants,” says Robinson. “When they encounter a vaccinated animal, it’s less likely to contract rabies.”
In turn, those animals are less likely to spread the virus to livestock, pets, and people.
Over the course of about 2 weeks, Doctor Robinson traveled throughout the Texas-Mexico border, making stops in Zapata, Del Rio and Alpine. Her team traveled in a high-tech mobile command center. But the rabies vaccines – which are covered in a pungent, animal-attracting fish meal – traveled in a separate trailer.
More than a million of these fishy rabies vaccines rained down over 16,400 square miles of the Texas border this month.
If you’re part of the crew that’s heading into the Texas sky to drop these vaccines, you better take some Jolly Ranchers with you.
“So, you know, the candies help a little bit,” says Capt. Stephen Waker with the Texas State Military, one of the agencies airdropping the vaccines.
While Walker’s flying some 500 to 1000 feet up, he’s also dealing with “AV gas” — that’s aviation gasoline. “You get the smell of a dead fish with the AV Gas,” says Walker. “Those two together are quite a bit to have to deal with inside the plane and then taking off and when. You’re actually in the air, you got three, four hours of that in your nostril the whole time.”
It may stink, but state officials say the vaccination program is effective. That putrid stench tormenting Walker in the sky is appetizing to wildlife on the ground. Animals eagerly bite down on the fast-food ketchup sized packets. And once they’ve digested their tasty treat, the animals are effectively immunized.
A string of deaths
The project dates back about 25 years. In the early 90s, Texas experienced a string of rabies-related deaths in people. And the virus was popping up in places it hadn’t been seen before, moving from more rural pockets of the state into more urban areas. Then, in 1994, then-governor Ann Richards declared a rabies state of emergency. Laura Robinson says, within a few years, the oral rabies vaccine program was up and running, targeting wildlife populations along the border and south-central Texas.
“Wildlife really are the reservoirs we need to really watch out for. With coyotes their range extends throughout North America,” says Robinson, adding that this means an infected coyote can travel long distances, spreading the virus along the way.
Next, Robinson and her team will work with the state wildlife department. In about 30 days they’ll test wild animals, like coyotes…collecting blood samples to determine if they have been immunized. Robinson says, historically, the success rate is pretty high, but it’s an endless battle. Come next January, they’ll be back, dropping their fish-scented vaccines over Texas.
In West Texas, I’m Carlos Morales