Exposure To Rabies Is Growing In Charles

Veterinarian Neal B. Neuman, owner of St. Charles Animal Hospital in Waldorf, gives a rabies vaccine to a Chihuahua named Honey, held by hospital manager Tricia DiLella.
Veterinarian Neal B. Neuman, owner of St. Charles Animal Hospital in Waldorf, gives a rabies vaccine to a Chihuahua named Honey, held by hospital manager Tricia DiLella. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Charles County Health Department officials confirmed 30 cases of animal rabies in 2007, an annual total that has increased 150 percent over the past two years.

Officials were quick to point out that the sharp uptick does not mean an increase in the number of rabid animals, but rather more frequent contact with humans. Experts attribute the increase in Charles and other fast-growing, formerly rural areas to the construction of housing subdivisions on land that was recently a natural habitat.

"Animals die in the woods of rabies all the time, and nobody knows anything about it," said Trish Herriman, a program supervisor in the Charles County Health Department's Division of Environmental Health Services. "What we've seen is a tremendous increase in the number of those animals coming into contact with humans."

A wild animal is tested for rabies at a state-operated laboratory if a human is exposed to its saliva directly or through a household pet. If the animal -- often a raccoon, fox, skunk or bat -- is found to have the disease, the human must be vaccinated quickly. Pets are typically vaccinated preemptively because of their increased likelihood of exposure to a rabid wild animal.

All three Southern Maryland counties offer occasional rabies clinics at which pet owners can have their animals vaccinated for a reduced fee. On Jan. 27, the Health Department and Charles County Humane Society will vaccinate pets for $7.

No human case of rabies has been diagnosed in Maryland since 1976, according to data from the state health department.

Several other jurisdictions in the Washington area have also seen significant increases in animals testing positive for rabies, though none as extreme as in Charles. Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, which also are experiencing rapid growth, saw a 50 percent increase in the number of rabies cases from 2005 to 2006, the most recent year for which data are available.

The other two Southern Maryland jurisdictions did not report significant rises in the number of rabies cases in 2007. Calvert County confirmed two cases of animal rabies, while St. Mary's County confirmed nine.

Anne Arundel is one of the rare counties that reported a decrease in the number of rabies cases, a trend officials there attribute to a particularly aggressive vaccination program. Aircraft drop fish meal bait laced with vaccine for raccoons throughout the county.

Raccoons were the most likely animal to be rabid in Charles County last year, according to Health Department data. The 30 animals confirmed to have rabies in 2007 included 16 raccoons, 7 skunks, 5 foxes, a groundhog and a bat. That breakdown aligns roughly with figures gathered by the state health department. The mid-Atlantic region has been considered a hotbed of rabies since the 1970s, when raccoons began coming to the area in large numbers.

Herriman said she does not expect a drop in the number of animals testing positive for rabies as long as housing developments continue to go up in formerly wooded areas. Many new homes on the streets and cul-de-sacs of new subdivisions have woods behind them, increasing the likelihood of human contact with a wild, possibly rabid, animal.

"What this means is people need to protect their own animals," Herriman said. "They need to make sure their pets have current rabies shots and teach their children to love their own pets and leave other [animals] alone."

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