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Rabies still a problem in Tri-State

May 18, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

Although Washington County has a relatively low rate of animal rabies cases compared to the rest of Maryland, public health officials predict that the numbers could be on the rise both locally and statewide.

"It's probably peaking again. It kind of goes up and down," said Washington County Health Department Sanitarian Rebecca Sauceda, who heads the county's rabies program.

"I expect an increase this year," Sauceda said. "It'll probably peak here in the next five years."

At the state level "it looks like it's on the rise. I can't say that it's peaked," Maryland's public health veterinarian Dr. Clifford Johnson said.

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Rabies is a virus that attacks the brain and is spread through the saliva of infected animals. Humans exposed to rabies are treated through a series of shots over 28 days. Untreated, it can be fatal to humans.

In 1996 there were 636 laboratory-confirmed animal rabies cases in Maryland, of which 19 were in Washington County, according to Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene figures.

Provisional numbers for 1997, through April 30, show 178 animal rabies cases statewide and 7 cases in Washington County.

Rabies numbers in Maryland last peaked in 1984 when 1,101 animals tested positive. The figures have fluctuated since then.

In 1993 they rose to 624 cases statewide and then dropped to 520 in 1994 and 442 in 1995 before rising to 636 last year.

Neighboring Frederick County has experienced a high incidence of animal rabies in recent years.

In 1996 there were 105 cases in Frederick County, the largest number in all of Maryland's 23 counties.

But for this year, as of April, Frederick County was in second place with 25 cases to Anne Arundel County's 35 cases. Baltimore County was in third place with 19 cases.

Animal rabies figures for the rest of the Tri-State area are lower than in Maryland.

In 1996 there were 14 cases in Franklin County, Pa., involving six raccoons, five skunks and three cats and three cases, all raccoons, in Fulton County, according to Sue Yeager, district epidemiology manager for the southcentral district of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

So far this year there have been three cases in Franklin County, involving two raccoons and a skunk, and one case of a raccoon in Fulton County. Yeager said.

The Morgan County, W.Va., Health Department reported no animal rabies cases in 1995, four cases in raccoons in 1996 and one case so far this year in a groundhog.

While 1995 brought a "bumper crop" of 13 animal rabies cases to Jefferson County, W.Va., there has been a "dramatic decrease" to two cases a year in the last two years, county health department Sanitarian Supervisor Randall Dehaven said.

Figures for Berkeley County, W.Va., were not immediately available but county health department Environmental Health Supervisor Twila Carr said the numbers have remained steady over the past few years.

The overwhelming majority of rabies cases in the Tri-State area involve raccoons.

Of Washington County's 19 cases last year 13 were raccoons, two were groundhogs and the remainder involved a fox, a cow, a skunk and a bat, according to state data.

This year's seven cases involved six raccoons and one skunk, Sauceda said.

Of Maryland's 636 cases in 1996, more than 500 were raccoons, Johnson said.

Three household pets in Washington County were euthanized this year by their owners because they had been bitten by a wild animal and were not current on their rabies shots, Sauceda said.

A pet that has been exposed to rabies and has not had its shots must be quarantined for six months to determine if it has been infected, Sauceda said.

If the pet is current on its rabies shots, no quarantine is necessary, but it will be given a booster shot, she said.

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