The countries of Europe had been invaded. The attack had come swiftly, and the invaders were winning. These desperate times called for extreme measures if there was going to be any hope of survival.
When someone suggested biological weapons and carpet bombing, there were immediate protests. The ethical implications of such drastic actions had not been fully explored. What would future generations say? Wouldn’t it be better to risk total annihilation than to break these deeply-held rules of war?
Despite the loud cries of protest, the decision was made. The weapons were prepared and loaded onto the aircraft. The pilots took off, found their targets, and dropped their payloads.
The unsuspecting inhabitants of the targeted territories heard the sound of the aircraft. They looked up with curiosity. Then they reacted with shock as the carpet bombing began. One can only speculate what went through their minds as they found themselves in the midst of a rainstorm of severed chicken heads.
The Invasion Begins
Two invading forces swept through Europe in 1939: the Nazis and rabies. One used tanks, trucks, and airplanes. The other traveled in red foxes. Understandably, most of the world’s attention was on the battles of World War II. Meanwhile, the rabies invaders moved steadily southward and westward, advancing a few miles each year. Slowly and deliberately, rabies broke through national boundaries, infecting country after country. This army ignored all treaties and international laws. It disregarded long-standing declarations of neutrality. In March 1967, rabies swept into Switzerland.
Rabies is the most ruthless of invaders. It has a no-prisoner philosophy, that results in a near-100% fatality rate for those who contract it. Government and health officials knew something had to be done about the red foxes that played host to the disease, but all of their efforts proved insufficient. They tried trapping, hunting, and poisoning the foxes. Despite their best efforts, the fox population continued to increase, and rabies persisted in its relentless advance.
Preparing a Counter-Offensive
If getting rid of the foxes wouldn’t work, the alternative had to be going after the disease itself. This meant vaccinating the foxes before they became infected. Capturing and vaccinating enough foxes would be more difficult than the fruitless attempts to kill them. Scientists studied alternatives to vaccination.
George Baer, a researcher with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) experimented with a buried gun-like device that would shoot vaccine into the foxes’ mouths. That experiment failed to produce the needed results. No one held any real hope that they could accomplish a task this massive.
Another experiment was developed by William Winkler. It was called the Vac-Trap. It used a spring-loaded vaccine-filled syringe that could be triggered when an animal stepped on a pressure pad. Although it worked, it was indiscriminate about its target. He deployed 130 Vac-Traps on a deserted beach only to be told that the U.S. Navy would be using it for a mock-invasion training exercise. He told the Navy about the Vac-Traps and offered to remove them. The Navy declined the offer, stating that “the hazards would serve as an additional measure of the invaders’ prowess.”
A Foul or Fowel Solution?
Researchers concluded that vaccination by needle was not going to work, so they focused their efforts on developing an oral form of the vaccination. By 1971, an effective oral vaccine made from weakened rabies virus was developed. For it to be useful, it needed to be paired with the right bait. Many options were considered, including dog biscuits, eggs, and sausages. Ultimately, researchers settled on disembodied chicken heads, with vaccine capsules hidden under the skin.
This raised a serious question. Since the virus was alive, could it gain strength and spread through the chicken flesh and make the pandemic worse? Franz Steck, a researcher at the University of Bern deployed several vaccine-infused chicken heads on a small rabies-free island. His studies concluded that it resulted in no outbreaks of the disease.
For the next phase of the experiment, on October 17, 1978, Steck deployed 4,050 treated chicken heads along the east shore of Lake Geneva. These heads also contained tetracycline, a chemical marker that would show up in the teeth and bones of any animal that consumed it. The researchers offered a bounty to hunters to bring in foxes from the area. This helped them conclude that foxes would, indeed, take the bait.
It was time to take the battle to the enemy. The treated chicken heads became the primary weapons against rabies in 1979. The initial results were promising and justified escalating the counter-offensive. Health officials took their battle to the skies, sending helicopters to drop payloads of treated chicken heads over any area where a rabies outbreak was evident. At its peak, Switzerland deployed 150,000 chicken heads per year. With each swallowed head, the rabies threat was pushed back, inch-by-inch.
That’s not to say there weren’t casualties. Among them was Franz Steck, who was killed in 1982. He was on a mission to deploy chicken heads when the helicopter crashed.
Thanks to the efforts of Steck and others, the bombing offensive against rabies was working. Germany started a similar program in 1983. By the mid-1990s, sixteen European countries joined in an alliance to combat the deadly disease.
Meanwhile, Germany looked for more efficient ways to combat rabies. It replaced chicken heads with mass-produced tablets made from fish or animal fat. These could be produced by the millions each year. Switzerland continued using chicken heads until 1991 before abandoning that method in favor of the German solution.
The war against rabies had dramatic results. The number of rabid foxes dropped by 90% within the first ten years of the campaign. In 1983 there were 23,000 cases of animal rabies reported in Europe. By 1995, the number had dropped to about 8,000.
Switzerland, the country where the counter-offensive began, was rabies-free by 1996. The battle saw 2.8 million baits deployed within their borders. Throughout Europe, about 74 million had been dispersed.
The disease that traveled through foxes had, at last, been outfoxed.
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Wow! Drastic times call for drastic measures!
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