AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq - An Army vaccination program to protect service members and local wildlife from rabies has been going on here and throughout Iraq for more than two and a half years.

Wild animals, like foxes and stray dogs, are captured in traps, inspected by Army veterinarians for any evidence of disease - especially rabies - tagged and then released, said Maj. Randel Rogers, a native of Columbus, Ohio, and a logistics officer with the 371st Sustainment Brigade here.

"We vaccinate them to make sure that they don't have rabies," he said. "So we can make sure that the population of the wildlife around our base are safe and are not spreading any disease that could affect us."

Rabies is a viral disease which causes acute encephalitis (an inflammation of brain tissue). Typically, humans are infected after receiving a bite from an infected animal, usually through its saliva. The virus begins with flu-like symptoms, but once it reaches the central nervous system death could result in a matter of days.

A recent boom in pet populations led to an increase in reported cases in Africa and Asia, where rabies kills more than 55,000 people every year, according to a report from the World Health Organization.

"[The program] is important because rabies is endemic in the country," said Capt. Brian Smith, of Houston, Texas, 64th Medical Detachment, and officer in charge of veterinary service for Multi-National Forces-West.

"There has been confirmed rabies in the country of Iraq," and many people were probably exposed to rabid animals and not aware of it, he said. Smith, though, was quick to point out he knew of no rabid animals found here or on other Coalition bases in western Iraq, which is his area of responsibility.

However, the vaccination program does not simply protect service members and local wildlife.

"One of the side effects that we realized on our rabies control program is that we were capturing all this data - because we were capturing all these animals on ours bases," Rogers said.

An amateur naturalist back home with a degree in wildlife management, Rogers partners with an Iraqi non-governmental organization and affiliate of the United Nations Environment Programme, Nature Iraq. Amongst all its other interests, Nature Iraq also endeavors to conduct the first detailed survey of plant and wildlife in Iraq since 1980.

"One of the problems with trying to protect wildlife is first establishing what species live in an area, what habitat they're using, how large the population is," Rogers said. "The more data we get, the clearer picture we'll have."

Such data is particularly helpful with secretive species like the jungle cat, which are poisoned and hunted extensively throughout the Middle East. Through vaccinations and booster shots - if a cat is caught again - the Coalition is helping to preserve a protected species and national treasure of Iraq, Smith said.

Both Smith and Rogers recommend avoiding any contact with wildlife, especially with stray cats or feral dogs, the most common carriers of the rabies virus. This is also why the military implemented policies to prohibit its service members from adopting local pets.

"My recommendation would be: If you are lucky enough to see (a wild animal), keep your distance and try to get a picture," Rogers said.