Rabies outbreaks in Virginia and Maryland have alarmed District health officials who say they are worried that rabid animals from the suburbs could bring the disease into the city.
Although District health officials haven't recorded a case of rabies in 30 years, rabid animals have been discovered in the inner suburbs of Virginia and Maryland in recent weeks.
"We're still clean," said Ingrid Newkirk of the District's public health service. "But we're always worried."
Virginia and Maryland aren't the only states that have been hit by massive rabies outbreaks. The entire nation is experiencing its worst rabies epidemic since 1954, according to Kenneth Bernard of the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Virginia health officials said they are battling the worst outbreak of rabies in the state in more than a decade. The epidemic began in rural northwestern counties last spring and is now spilling into suburban Fairfax County, officials said.
Three cases of rabies have been found in raccoons in Fairfax County within the last six weeks--the first cases reported in the county in more than three years, said Chester Bowman, director of laboratory studies for the county health department.
Rabies also has been found in several cats and one cow in Virginia, health records show.
In Alexandria, the rabies outbreak has spurred animal control officials to begin trapping stray cats in an attempt to reduce the city's wild cat population.
Reported cases of rabies in animals throughout Virginia were up almost 600 percent in the first 10 weeks of this year compared with the same period in 1981, state health records show. Of the 63 cases reported statewide this year, 55 were discovered in Loudoun and Fauquier counties.
Two of the infected raccoons from Fairfax County were picked up in outlying neighborhoods in the southwestern part of the county, while the third was discovered about a quarter of a mile from densely populated Arlington County, Bowman said.
"We've been anticipating the spread from the counties to the south and west of us," said Richard Amity, director of Fairfax Animal Control, which handles rabies cases reported in the county.
The rabies outbreak has escalated dramatically, sweeping across counties along the northwestern and southern edges of the state, said Tom Sayvetz of the Virginia Bureau of Communicable Diseases.
In 1981, health officials recorded 166 rabies cases statewide, up from 35 cases reported the previous year. Since the first of this year alone, 63 cases already have been reported.
The number of reported rabies cases in Maryland jumped 25 percent last year with 50 recorded cases: 34 bats, eight skunks, seven raccoons and one groundhog.
In the first 10 weeks of 1982, Maryland health officials have recorded 13 rabies cases--11 of them in raccoons. The other two cases were found in a cow and a bat.
Most of the cases were reported from western Allegheny County. One rabid bat was found in Montgomery County this year. Prince George's has reported no cases this year, although two rabid bats were discovered in the county last year.
Newkirk said District health officials are particularly concerned that rabid bats from Maryland could infect bat populations in the District.
Health officials said they expect the epidemic to escalate even more in the next few weeks during the animals' mating season.
Rabies, which affects the brain and central nervous system, is almost always fatal, health officials say. The disease is usually contracted through a cut, scratch or bite from an infected animal.
Apparently, vaccinations are no guarantee that pets won't contract rabies. In Culpeper, Va., a two-year-old dog that had been immunized against the disease became one of the latest victims of the epidemic and the first case of rabies in dogs in the state this year, health officials said.