Texas Resumes Wildlife Vaccine Airdrops to Combat Rabies Along Border

News Release
Jan. 18, 2021

The Texas Department of State Health Services takes aim at rabies when its Oral Rabies Vaccination Program resumes flights Jan. 18 from Zapata. This year marks the 27th year of this successful program, which led to the elimination of the domestic dog-coyote and the Texas fox rabies virus variants from the state.

The project is slated to run for two weeks. DSHS will utilize aircraft from Dynamic Aviation Group, Inc. and a Texas Wildlife Services helicopter to airdrop more than 1.15 million baits containing rabies vaccine along the southern Texas border. Ground distribution of additional vaccine baits by local and regional public health personnel will take place in South Texas and El Paso County in late January.

An outbreak caused by a domestic dog/coyote variant of the rabies virus led Texas to initiate the first ORVP in 1995 in southern Texas, while a gray fox rabies outbreak occurring in West-Central Texas led to an ORVP in 1996. The program’s success was evident early on. Texas experienced 122 cases of the dog/coyote rabies variant in 1994, the year before the first vaccine drop, but then recorded zero cases by 2000. Since then just two cases have been documented – one in 2001 and one in 2004. Both occurred within a mile of the Rio Grande River, which is why DSHS concentrates the baits in that area to help vaccinate animals that may enter the country across the southern border.

“Our goal is to vaccinate wildlife migrating into the state and keep those strains from being reintroduced,” said Dr. Laura Robinson, ORVP director. “This year vaccine baits will be distributed in 19 counties along the border.”

The baits to be dropped along the US-Mexico border are small, plastic packets dipped in fish oil and coated with fishmeal crumbles to attract coyotes, gray foxes and other wild carnivores. Extensive research across a wide variety of species has proven the vaccine to be safe; only non-infectious portions of the rabies virus are used. Neither humans nor animals are in danger of developing rabies if they are exposed to the vaccine.

Typically, rabies is spread through the bite of an infected animal. If a person or animal exhibits symptoms of the disease, it is nearly always fatal. It’s critical to immunize domestic animals like pets to help stop the spread of the disease and protect the animals and their owners. Skunks and bats today are the most significant sources of rabies in Texas.

Funding for the $2 million project is provided by the State of Texas and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service/Wildlife Services. Airdrop operations will be launched from Zapata County Airport, Del Rio International Airport and Alpine-Casparis Municipal Airport. 

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(Note: This year’s operation is starting later than usual after the holidays to minimize possible COVID-19 transmission. As a result of COVID-19 protocols, on-site media interviews cannot be accommodated this year.)

(News Media Contact: Douglas Loveday, DSHS Press Officer, 512-289-6940)

Last updated January 18, 2021