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rabies

It’s skunk vaccination time

Again.

Fresh from victories over rabies strains in the coyote and gray fox, Texas [launched] its annual aerial assault on one of the state’s top remaining carriers: skunks.

The state health department Wednesday [began] dropping 1.4 million doses of edible rabies vaccines over a 17-county area between Houston and Austin, where laboratories have consistently confirmed skunk cases. The area covered has been expanded since the strategy first was attempted on skunks in 2012.

“It makes sense to turn our attention to skunks since they’re now the most likely terrestrial animal in Texas to have rabies,” Dr. Laura Robinson, director of the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Oral Rabies Vaccination Program, said in a statement. “Every year, hundreds of animals are infected with the skunk strain of rabies, and there’s a risk they could spread the virus to livestock, pets or humans.”

Texas has more laboratory-confirmed cases of rabies in wildlife than any other state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of confirmed cases in 2014 topped 1,000, though final data are not yet in. In 2013, the state confirmed 937 cases, including 432 in bats and 402 in skunks. The oral rabies vaccination program eliminated the coyote strain and virtually eliminated the gray fox strain.

A Texas map of the sites where rabies cases in all wildlife has been confirmed can be found here.

See here and here for the background. If you’re out in the countryside and you see some odd little plastic packets lying on the ground, please don’t touch them. They’re for the skunks. The program has been quite successful so far, so kudos to the DSHS for their work. If only we could vaccinate more people this easily.

Vaccinating skunks

To prevent rabies, of course.

Texas, which has long campaigned for family pets to be vaccinated against rabies, is now attacking from the sky one of the state’s foulest carriers of the disease: skunks.

Skunks would obviously put up quite a stink if caught and hauled in to a veterinarian’s office for shots. So the state health department is taking the rabies vaccine to the vermin.

Twin-engine airplanes this month are crisscrossing 8,800 square miles of East and Central Texas to drop 1.2 million vaccine packets.

Each vaccine is the size of a fast-food ketchup packet and is coated with smelly fish meal to entice skunks to eat it.

Packets will rain down at a rate of about 150 per square mile, as pilots try to evenly disperse the vaccines over rural portions of Montgomery, Fort Bend, Waller and 14 other counties to the west and north of Houston.

The massive airdrop – which should skirt around residential neighborhoods – is part of an expanded test by the Texas Department of State Health Services of the V-RG vaccine – the same preventative used over the past two decades to nearly eliminate the canine and fox strains of rabies.

“We want to know if it will be just as effective in wiping out the skunk strain as it did the other two,” said Tom Sidwa, state public health veterinarian.

See? It is possible for uninsured people to get health care in Texas, if by “uninsured people” you mean “skunks”, and by “health care” you mean “air-dropped vaccination packets”. Details, details.

Seriously, this is a good idea that worked with one strain of rabies and ought to work equally well with another. I hope to read a future report about how successful this effort was.

Eradicating rabies

Did you know that the state of Texas has been funding a program to wipe out rabies in foxes and coyotes by dropping vaccines for it from airplanes. It’s called the Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Project, and it’s been a smashing success.

Vaccination from above

Vaccination from above

The program began in 1995 as a desperate experiment. The most serious outbreak of dog rabies in the United States in decades had moved within 40 miles of San Antonio, killing two people in its path, as it swept northward from Mexico, spread by infected coyotes.

Hundreds of animals, including pets and livestock, were infected and died. Some 2,000 people received post-exposure shots. And a separate outbreak of rabies in foxes that began in West Texas had already reached the San Antonio area.

Since then, millions of baits have been dropped over Texas. By 2004, the federal government declared the canine strain eliminated from the state.

And although the last rabid fox was found in Wink, near the New Mexico border, in May 2009, health officials want to make sure it, too, is gone before declaring victory.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Dr. Ernest Oertli, a veterinarian who heads the program for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “I’m sure it’s what was felt with polio and pox, when you can say – even within this one geographical area – that public health is making a difference.”

Yes, that’s the government at work, running a program that saves lives. Who knew they did that, right? You can learn more about it here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a wildlife rabies program as well, aimed at rabies in raccoons, which has also been quite successful. There’s still skunk rabies, which officials here hope to combat next, and bat rabies, for which there isn’t a plan just yet. Still a pretty nifty accomplishment, and something to keep in your back pocket the next time you hear some nihilist denigrate what government can do.