Small, smelly packets of vaccine are being dropped from airplanes in eastern and central Texas in an effort to control rabies in skunks.
Parts of 17 counties are being targeted this month by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Each vaccine is the size of a fast-food ketchup packet and coated in fish meal, the Houston Chronicle reported Sunday.
The airdrop in rural areas is part of an expanded test of the V-RG vaccine, the same preventative used for the past 20 years against the canine and fox strains of rabies. Rabies-carrying coyotes also gobbled previous packets.
"We want to know if it will be just as effective in wiping out the skunk strain as it did the other two," said Dr. Tom Sidwa, state public health veterinarian.
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The skunk strain is causing a majority of the state's rabid animal cases, Sidwa said. The second most prevalent strain comes from bats, and there is no known vaccine for rabies carried by bats, he said.
The state has attempted a much smaller pilot test of the skunk vaccine. Packets were spread over plots in Fort Bend County in 2012, and then some similar plots in Waller County last year.
Twin-engine airplanes are crisscrossing 8,800 square miles to drop vaccine packets in rural areas in the latest effort. The counties are Austin, Bastrop, Brazos, Burleson, Colorado, Fayette, Fort Bend, Grimes, Houston, Lavaca, Lee, Madison, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, Washington and Wharton.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture studied the oral vaccine and found it was not harmful to humans if they happened to touch one of the plastic-covered packets. The packets are safe for ingestion for 60 animal species, including dogs and cats, experts say.
Each packet has a printed message that warns people to keep away: "Rabies vaccine, live vaccinia vector, do not disturb."