The deadly serious rabies scare, provoked by the worst outbreak of rabies in the Washington area in years, produced some light moments in official Maryland circles yesterday.
In Prince George's County, the director of animal control rolled up his sleeve and got a rabies vaccination, taunted by reluctant animal wardens who then followed his lead.
And in Montgomery County, members of the County Council debated whether cats should be vaccinated against rabies, and if so, how to show they had been. Among the suggestions: Tattoos and earrings.
The Prince George's animal control wardens are a feisty bunch who once burned their supervisor in effigy during a strike. But it was obvious they still get nervous about taking shots, as they sat around a conference table yesterday waiting for the Big Boss to take the first dose of a rabies vaccine.
As boss Charles Deegan, who is 6 foot 2 inches and "too many" pounds lumbered up to the table and surrendered his left arm to the uniformed health department nurse, warden Lea Bielawski couldn't decide whether she would actually go through with it.
"I'm scared," said Bielawski, suddenly flushed pink. "No, I'm not scared. Say, how big is that needle?"
"I'd take it if I were in your position," said assistant county health officer Art Thatcher.
"Then why don't you get into my position," replied Irene Nelson of the Bowie animal control office.
Thatcher did just that, and the wardens were finally convinced, after 6 months of prodding, that the new rabies vaccine was safe.
Last March, Deegan, head of the county licenses department, wrote a memo encouraging his 16 wardens to take the vaccine, which requires skin injections in the arm on three separate occasions. Wardens pick up stray and dead animals and Deegan was concerned that they might come in contact with a rabid animal. Rabies, almost always fatal, can be contracted by humans when the saliva from a rabid animal enters through a bite, a cut or other opening in the skin.
The wardens opted to sign a memo saying they didn't want the shots. Undaunted, Deegan gathered the wardens together last Monday to see a film about what happens when a person gets rabies, "one of the grossest films I've ever seen," he admitted.
The vaccine the wardens received is relatively new. Until recently, the only vaccine available was a series of 21 burning shots administered to the stomach. Worse than the shots were relatively common side effects including sudden collapse, respiratory failure and an occasionally fatal seizure. That's what had the warden's scared.
Chuckles came from Montgomery County yesterday over how the County Council would enforce a bill requiring cats to be vaccinated against rabies. How would you know if the cat had gotten its shots, council members wondered.
Council member Esther Gelman suggested earrings. "Every cat in the Middle East wears one," she said. Council President Neal Potter wondered if tattoos would be better.
Potter was concerned that cats might strangle themselves if forced to wear tag collars. "They're not as smart as dogs," he said, drawing indignant looks all around the meeting room.
For a moment it seemed that Potter might be publicly hissed. "Now we know why Mr. Potter didn't get the CatPac vote in the elections," Council member David Scull interjected mildly.
The debate was somewhat deflated by the testimony of two expert witnesses who warned that any kind of tag for the animal would be unreliable. "Owners could take the tag from a dead animal and put it on a new one," Dr. Norman Roskin, president of the Montgomery County Veterinarian Medical Association said.
Few members questioned whether cats should get rabies shots, particularly after they heard Dr. Joseph Horman from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, say that cats are statistically higher carriers of rabies than dogs.
The problem of identifying inoculated cats will be discussed again in a future work session.