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HEALTH : Rabies Outbreak in Texas Carried North by Coyotes : Two persons have died, and 1,600 have been treated for exposure to the virus in one of the worst flare-ups in recent U.S. history.

March 28, 1995|LIANNE HART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state health department, under fire for failing to stop the outbreak, points out that an oral coyote vaccine did not exist until now. "The technology just wasn't there," said Dr. Keith Clark, director of the department's zoonosis control division. Working with Texas A&M University and other groups, the health department adapted to coyotes an oral rabies vaccine fed to raccoons.

Officials will begin to measure the success of the $2.3-million bait-drop program next month by monitoring coyotes in the buffer zone. "The infected animals south of the area will die within days of exhibiting symptoms," Clark said.

That's cold comfort for San Diego Mayor Alfredo Cardenas. "It seems to me they ought to be dropping the vaccine in the affected areas, not farther north. It's like they think we're too far gone to help, so they leave us to suffer."

In a decaying neighborhood behind City Hall, three dogs dozing on a sagging porch shift lazily as one rouses itself to gnaw at a bleeding sore.

Belinda Everett, 25, the mother of two toddlers, is frightened. "Some of these dogs bark real ugly. They will put their heads up and cry like a coyote. My boys like to run around with their cousins all day, but now I won't let them go outside without me. I spend more than $10 a day for videotapes so that they'll stay inside."

In a mobile home next door, Jose Ramon Pena, called J.R., shyly raises his left thumb, which still bears a nick from the rabid dog shot by San Diego police last month. J.R. was riding the dog like a pony when he jumped off and gleefully clapped his hands. That's when the dog nipped him. His parents drove 60 miles to Corpus Christi to find a hospital that stocked the vaccine.

Unlike horror stories involving long needles and painful injections in the stomach, modern rabies treatment consists of five separate shots in the arm with a purplish serum called HDCV. A needle of standard length is used, but treatment must begin quickly because the dormant rabies virus can become active at almost any time.

Once the virus moves from muscle cells to nerve tissue, there is no way to stop it. By the time clinical symptoms--such as lack of coordination and mood swings--appear, the virus has already traveled up the spinal cord and into the brain, causing swelling and, within weeks, certain death. J.R., who usually cries at the sight of a needle, quietly laid his head on the examining table and waited for the injection, said his mother, Victoria Pena.

"He heard the doctor say he would die without the medicine," she said. "It scared him."

J.R. announced he will stay away from the strays. "If a dog bites me, they'll put more shots in," he said gravely. Outdoors, two strays paw through an overturned garbage can.

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