Texas State Guardsmen team up with state agencies to eradicate rabies

Private Paul Pettit, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, Texas State Guard, unloads a bag of bait to be dropped over the South Texas Zapata area during the 2012 Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Program.
Private Paul Pettit, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, Texas State Guard, unloads a bag of bait to be dropped over the South Texas Zapata area during the 2012 Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Program. Since the program's inception in 1995, more than 39 million doses of the oral rabies vaccine, Raboral V RG, have been distributed over approximately 540,000 square miles of Texas. (U.S. Army Photo photo by Laura L. Lopez)

 Story by: Staff Sgt. Malcolm McClendon

  ZAPATA, Texas – Members of the Texas State Guard and the Texas Wildlife Services, joined forces with the Texas  Department of State Health Services to participate in the Oral Rabies Vaccination Program along the Texas/Mexico  Border, Jan. 8-17, 2013.

 The annual program drops baited vaccines from an aircraft over high-risk wildlife areas to help control rabies. 

 “We have been dropping baited vaccines in to reduce rabies in domestic dogs and coyotes in south Texas since 1995,  and the gray fox in west Texas since 1996,” said Dr. Ernest Oertli, director ORVP, DSHS. 

 Oertli states that the number of rabies cases in south Texas has dropped from around 150 cases in 1995 to zero in  2000, and only one known report since then. Similarly in West Texas, 240 cases were reported in 1996, with the number  dropping to zero in recent years. 

 The program’s success hits home for Alamo, Texas resident, Sgt. 1st Class Gary Vanderpool, 3rd Battalion, 1st  Regiment, Texas State Guard, who has participated in the program for two years. 

 “I live about 1.5 miles from the border, pretty much an area where we drop the vaccines,” said Vanderpool. “I was around  when a rabies outbreak hit the local community years back.”

 Vanderpool remembers hearing about the initiation of ORVP to combat the epidemic.

 “I recall seeing the planes flying overhead and dropping baits,” Vanderpool continued. “I had no idea the State Guard  was involved and much less that I would someday be up there myself.”

 Up in the air, Vanderpool, along with fellow State Guardsmen, 1st Lt. Stephen Walker, Sgt. Joel Hernandez, Sgt. Ignacio  Vega and Cpl. Arial Lim, rotated in two-man crews to help distribute the vaccines.

“One person is the navigator and one person is a baiter,” Vanderpool said. “The navigator helps the pilot watch for hazards such as flocks of birds, wires, or other aircraft. He also keeps watch on the distance of each bait line dropped and relays that information to the baiter. The baiter then takes that info and prepares the proper amount of baits to be dropped accordingly.” 

The baits are delivered from as far south as Zapata to the west near Alpine, across a 25-mile wide “barrier zone” every January. Oertli said the cooler weather helps with the effectiveness of the vaccines.

“There are three main reasons we drop in January,” Oertli said. “One, is that food is scarce in the area, so the animals at risk are more likely to come out to eat the bait; two, the cooler weather helps keep the vaccines viable longer; and three, fire ants. Fire ants are less active in the winter, so less likely to devour the baits.”

Oertli said in addition to the weather, the program’s success is due to the hard work of all the agencies involved, and gave a particular mention to the Texas State Guard.

“The State Guard is a valuable asset to this program.” Oertli continues. “Their flexibility and determination to get the job done, absolutely contributes to the ORVP’s accomplishments. Most of these Soldiers are from the areas affected, so they can see the benefits of their efforts firsthand.”

This success came full circle for Vanderpool.

“I joined the State Guard three years ago, because I wanted to be a Soldier again and serve my community,” Vanderpool said. “Working on ORVP gives me the opportunity to use my soldier skills to plan and execute the mission. The success of my team’s hard work is evident, almost literally, in our own backyard. ”

ORVP’s success in south and west Texas, and communities similar to Vanderpool’s has prompted DSHS to begin assessing the possibility of expanding the program in areas in east Texas.