It still horrifies Page Mitchell to think about the summer night more than a year ago when a raccoon went on the rampage in her Culpeper, Va., house. It barged through the front door and came at her in a crazed frenzy -- snarling, almost barking, with jaws wide open.
Terrified, Mitchell and her husband watched the raccoon tear through the house until they finally cornered it and beat it to death with canes. Then they set about scouring the house with vinegar, bleach and water, because there was never any doubt in their minds.
"We knew it had rabies," Mitchell said.
In the year and a half since that raccoon stormed the Mitchell home, the worst outbreak of rabies in the Washington area in years has materialized. Virginia officials have confirmed 513 cases so far this year, making it second in the nation in the number of reported cases. Maryland reports 72 cases to date, up from 50 last year. And just last week, the District confirmed its first rabies case in at least 25 years.
Area health officials are girding for what they anticipate will be a long fight to control the outbreak. But their biggest battle may be with public misconceptions about rabies, which is one of the most feared and myth-enshrouded scourges of man.
Typical is the problem presented by cases like the Mitchells', for while it conforms to the popular conception of how a rabid animal behaves, it is by no means necessarily the norm, health authorities said. In fact, rabid animals can appear docile and friendly, and the disease can even strike a loved house pet.
JeNielle Embrey of Warrenton, for example, never suspected that her cat had rabies. Last spring she took it to a veterinarian for what she thought was little more than a routine examination. The cat had seemed to be acting as if its hind legs were sore.
But 10 days later when it died, an autopsy disclosed that it had rabies.
Then there is the belief that rabid wild animals seek out victims to attack, as appears to have been the case in the Mitchells' situation. Although that can occur, in most cases humans can avoid the encounter simply by being cautious, said Richard Amity, director of the Fairfax County animal shelter.
A Fauquier County man, for example, was bitten when his dog and a rabid raccoon began to fight and he tried to separate them.
"It is unusual for a wild animal just to come up and bite a person," said Dr. John Einarson of the Fauquier County health department. "We tell people to stay clear of wild animals."
The rabies outbreak has taxed local health agencies as they have tried to cope with the jump in cases and to expand their vaccination and information programs. Fauquier County health officials have been swamped with so many requests to test sick animals that they now tell residents to kill and bury any that are suspicious-acting. But if the animals have come in contact with humans or domestic animals, they should be brought in for testing -- dead or alive.
The Fairfax County health department has had so many specimens to test -- 2,600 so far this year -- that it has temporarily run short on laboratory chemicals. Officials said it typically costs a jurisdiction about $50 an animal to determine whether it has rabies.
In Montgomery County, animal shelter officials are reporting a three- to four-week waiting list for residents who want to rent wild animal traps from the county.
For the human victim of an attack by a rabid animal, there is good news, however, because the latest outbreak of rabies has coincided with the development of a new rabies vaccine. Gone is the series of 21 painful injections into the stomach that terrified victims almost as much as the animal attack, health officials said. The new vaccine requires only five to seven injections, all of which can be made in the arm.
Until recently, the vaccine was available only in limited amounts and distributed only through government health agencies. Since February, however, the supply problem has eased and the vaccine has been available to hospitals and private doctors.
But there is bad news, too. The series of injections, which costs an average of $500, must be paid for by the individual or covered by insurance.
Tim Neville and his wife, who live in Warrenton, were among the first in the area to receive the new vaccine when rabies was detected in their house cat last year.
"There wasn't enough vaccine available in our area at the time," Neville said. "The health department sent the state highway patrol racing across the Shenandoah Mountains to Harrisonburg to get the dose."
The Nevilles, who never suspected rabies in their cat until it died suddenly and was tested, said they learned an important lesson from the experience.
"Double check the vaccination records of all your pets," Neville said. "A $3 shot is cheap insurance."