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Rabies Took Bite of Sun City
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Regine Boussy
On Saturday, September 9, 1995, hundreds of dogs, many of them obviously unfamiliar with the leash, were carried, dragged and wrestled into Fabens Junior High School in an effort to keep a rabies outbreak in South and Central Texas out of El Paso.
Dr. Randy Shinaut (left), along with assistant vaccinates dog with the anti-rabies vaccine. Photo by Regine Boussy."I even brought my children's favorite neighbor's dog," said Oscar Martinez, a Fabens resident, pointing down to one of his three dogs. "I heard an epidemic was coming, and I don't want to put my children in any danger."
Fabens High School was only one site of this past fall's vaccination drive launched by the El Paso Veterinary Medical Association in cooperation with the City-County Health Department. Numerous temporary vaccination sites were set up in and around the city to reach a large segment of pet owners and their animals who don't see a veterinarian on a regular basis.
Vaccination drives are only one part of the city's rabies control program to prevent a repetition of the period in the 1950s and 1960s when El Paso suffered rabies epidemics. In 1953, an outbreak in El Paso turned into a 14-year battle and the city held the title of "Rabies Capital of the Nation," according to Dr. Keith Sikes, chief of the Rabies Control Activity Section of the U.S. Public Health Department in Atlanta, Ga.
The rabies control program developed during this period brought the epidemic to an end and was Considered one of the best in the United States.
Rabies had occurred in El Paso since 1835. Between 1953 and 1967, the city averaged 45.5 cases per year, with over 88 percent in dogs. In 1953, there were 54 cases, 1956 saw 60 cases and 1957 saw an all-time high of 94 cases. In 1967, a total of 51 cases occurred.
The battle against the deadly disease ended in 1968, when El Paso finally recorded no cases of rabies in dogs and only 11 total cases in the area. The foundation of this rabies control program is today still widely used throughout the nation.
A drastic change in the initial handling of the problem was called for after a state of emergency in the control of rabies was declared in 1963 by Commissioners Court. In 1965, El Paso mayor Judson Williams, on the recommendation of federal, state and local health officials established the Department of Veterinary Services and made it the agency strictly responsible for the control of rabies.
State and local health agencies met to develop a program. In April of 1965, the plan went into effect with cooperation from adjoining Dona Ana County, New Mexico; Fort Bliss Military Reservation; and Juárez, Mexico.
According to the new program, the El Paso Department of Veterinary Services was to first enforce annual vaccination and to register all owned dogs four months of age or older. Next, it was to control stray animal populations. Third, it was to investigate all animal bites and exposures, and finally, to enforce the "leash law" for dogs.
The program staff consisted of a director, three bite investigators, eight animal wardens, three clerk dispatchers, a kennel warden and four kennel men.
Prior to the execution of the new program, the city passed an ordinance stating that all dogs had to be vaccinated and registered yearly and wear tags as proof. Dogs were to be kept on their owners' property by physical restraint or on a leash when taken out.
Kevin Coker, a zoonosis (a disease that can be transmitted from animals to man) control specialist with the Texas Department of Veterinary Services in El Paso, explains that in order to enforce vaccination and registration of all owned dogs during this time, all city clinics offered free vaccinations. A campaign to publish and disseminate information on the disease and current laws was launched through cooperation with schools, churches, news media and parent groups. Animal control officers went from house to house, giving out citations to those pet owners not complying with the ordinance.
To enforce the leash law and eliminate stray animals, the program provided suitable facilities for the humane destruction of unclaimed or unwanted animals. Dogs running loose were picked up. They were held three days for the owner to claim, and then they were destroyed. Health officials paid special attention to the Rio Grande river bed as they believed that strays from Juárez wandering unchecked across the border were one of the main problems in spreading the disease.
The seriousness of stray animals was also pointed out by both Col. Renwick Riley (ret.), Humane Society manager during that time, and Col. Daughtrey of Fort Bliss. In his annual report, Riley called for a "Dog-tight fence" along the international boundary to stop the rising number of bites experienced by military personnel. In an effort to eliminate roaming dogs throughout Biggs Airfield, Fort Bliss veterinarians and United States Fish and Wildlife Service workers set traps.
In order for the city to investigate all animal bites, the public was urged to cooperate by reporting every bite or exposure to rabies. Bite investigators would then follow up each report and try to track down the animal, not always an easy task.
In 1968, the flawless execution of such control measures brought the epidemic to an end. In response to the campaign, 22,000 dogs were vaccinated in 1965 and 33,000 in 1968, compared to only 14,000 in the year prior to the ordinance.
The chain of rabies transmission was broken and the risk of infection in domestic animals was reduced by the elimination of strays.
By 1967, 80 percent of all dog bites occurred on the owners' property, meaning that the program was working. The confinement of dogs to their owners' premises and the elimination of 80 percent of all strays made it easier for bite investigators to track down the animals. The most significant result was the reduction in the number of people having to undergo painful anti-rabies treatment.
On December 31, 1968, Jack Luck, the supervisor of El Paso's Animal Control Center, announced the city's "First year in history without a single reported case of rabies in dogs and cats." The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare declared it to be "a model program for health programs of international interest."
Since this time the city has experienced two more outbreaks, one in 1974 and the other in 1979. Each was brought under control within a year. Although canine rabies has not been recorded since, it still poses a constant threat and the preventive program must remain strong. Continued education and responsible pet ownership is critical if the city expects to remain free of rabies.
In 1980, to keep the public aware of the problem, the city came up with flashing billboards to remind pet owners of their responsibilities. In the same year the research for a new vaccine finally came to an end and a safer, cheaper and more effective licensed vaccine was introduced. A recent outbreak in South and Central Texas again brought the issue to the forefront. Instead of waiting for the problem to arrive, El Paso's health officials launched an immunization drive to prevent the disease.