Three King Air planes are lined up on a small runway in the town of Del Rio preparing to bomb south Texas—not with explosives, but with hundreds of thousands of packets of rabies vaccine.
The packets, each about the size of fast food ketchup, contain enough vaccine to inoculate the coyotes that roam the southwest Texas brush country against rabies, which until the last two decades was threatening livestock and humans alike.
"We had two outbreaks of rabies in coyotes and in foxes," recalls Dr. Ernest Oertli, a veterinarian who works with ranchers in this area. "There were a couple of human deaths from rabies, and it was spreading northward and eastward into the populated parts of the state, and was on the outskirts of San Antonio, Austin, Waco and Ft. Worth."
Oertli said that at the time, animal and human health experts were worried about an urban rabies epidemic, and were urgently telling residents to vaccinate their pets against rabies. Rabies in humans is almost always fatal unless the patient receives immediate and lengthy treatment.
Researchers with the Texas Department of State Health Services learned of an aerial vaccination program underway in Canada, and decided to try it in the equally vast south and west regions of Texas. The results over the past 18 years have been dramatic, according to department spokesman Chris Van Deusen.
"Animal cases of the canine strain of rabies in southern Texas fell from 122 the year before the program began, to zero in 2000," Van Deusen said. "There have only been two cases since then, and both of them were within a mile of the Rio Grande."more