State health officials are getting tough on skunks, known carriers of rabies, by dropping 1.2 million doses of edible vaccines in 17 counties, including five counties in the Brazos Valley.
The Texas Department of State Health Services announced on Friday that pilots would be making low-flying trips in light airplanes to deliver the vaccines to rural areas and wildlife habitats in East and Central Texas. The pilots started delivering the packages on Friday, and state department spokeswoman Christine Mann said they should be finished by this Friday.
The V-RG vaccines are about the size of a ketchup packet and are yellowish, according to the DHSH website. They are coated in fish meal, which gives off an odor that attracts the animals, Mann said. Some include a printed message warning people to stay away.
Though the vaccine is safe for dogs and cats to eat, Mann said it should not be used to replace rabies vaccines given by a veterinarian. If found, Mann recommended leaving the cubes alone, even though they aren't toxic to humans. If touched, the skunks are less likely to eat the vaccine, she said.
"We've been extremely successful in eliminating the canine strain of rabies" in foxes and coyotes through a similar program started 20 years ago, Mann said.
"We want to know if it will be just as effective in wiping out the skunk strain as it did the other two," Tom Sidwa, state public health veterinarian, told The Associated Press.
The DSHS has been using planes to deliver vaccines to coyote and grey fox populations in South and West Texas, specifically in the Rio Grande Valley. Mann said the DSHS program drops 2.5 million doses of rabies vaccines in 41 counties for that program.
With rabies under control in coyotes and foxes, the DSHS has turned to the next two culprits: skunks and bats.
A 2012 pilot program targeting skunks in Fort Bend County was deemed a success and was later expanded to Waller County before including 15 other counties. The pilots fly about a dozen trips each day from Fayette County, covering about a half square-mile on each pass, Mann said. The total delivery area covers 8,800 square miles.
Counties included in the program are Austin, Bastrop, Brazos, Burleson, Colorado, Fayette, Fort Bend, Grimes, Houston, Lavaca, Lee, Madison, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, Washington and Wharton.
Merial, the vaccine's manufacturer, is a global producer of veterinary health products, including the heartworm preventative Heartgard and flea protection products such as Frontline, according to the company's website. It is the same company that created the vaccine for the fox and coyote program, Mann said.
The health department says the vaccines are safe for 60 species to consume, but the intended target is skunks in rural areas.
Mann said there hasn't been a program directed toward bats because it's harder to create a delivery system for the vaccine.
"Bats are nocturnal and they eat insects, so it's a little more difficult to find a way of treating them for rabies," Mann said.