Montgomery County's rabies outbreak, which began last summer, is showing signs of staying for a long time to come, county officials said last week.
By last Friday, 121 animals had been tested and confirmed rabid, with the number increasing daily. On Friday, rabies was confirmed in two more raccoons, one in Germantown and the other in Gaithersburg.
Prince George's County trapped its first rabid raccoon Jan. 22. Since last summer, District animal control workers have found six rabid raccoons, one near George Washington University and the rest on MacArthur Boulevard NW.
All but four of Montgomery's rabid animals were raccoons. Three others were skunks, and last week the county recorded its first case of rabies in a beaver. "We're broadening our menagerie here," said Charles Maier, the county's information officer.
"It comes in cycles," Dr. Lewis Holder, the county's health officer, said of rabies. "And the cycle is probably that it will be here for two or three more years."
County health officials expressed concern that, despite the widespread publicity and advertising campaign alerting people to avoid wild animals, people still may not have gotten the message.
They also worried that after an unusually mild winter, spring will increase the potential human exposure to a disease that so far has been confined mainly to the wild animal population.
"It's going to be bad come spring," said Warren Columber, an investigator with the county's animal control department. "More people will be out on the footpaths" in the parks along the Potomac River, he said.
Rabies, if left untreated, is almost always fatal to humans. The disease, transmitted through animal saliva, blood or open wounds, can be combated with a series of five injections, but the shots must begin soon after contact with the rabid animal.
The rabies outbreak, the most serious in recent memory, has affected much of the southeastern U.S., beginning in Florida and Georgia and moving swiftly to Virginia and West Virginia.
Rabies cases first began appearing in Montgomery in late summer, prompting a nationwide alert that for the first time, the disease--once confined to woods and wilderness--was reaching densely populated urban areas.
That threat prompted the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control to begin monitoring this area's situation, to track the disease's path and to prepare the next onslaught areas, potentially the District and Philadelphia, for what could be an epidemic.
"We're probably the first large urban area to suffer this kind of an outbreak," Columber said.
Rabies in urban areas means an increased potential for human exposure, particularly because raccoons often are seen as nonthreatening, almost domesticated, animals that live side-by-side with city dwellers.
"Actually, a raccoon is cute to a lot of people," Columber said. "But when he's sick, he gets testy. He'll cohabitate with you as long as he gets his own way."
Montgomery's rabies outbreak led to a full-scale, coordinated response. The County Council passed an emergency law requiring that cats be vaccinated. The county's animal control department began a series of free vaccination clinics for dogs and cats at which 3,000 pets have been vaccinated.
Warning signs have been posted around the county, and students have been sent home with notes warning of the potential dangers. The Humane Society of the United States reissued a nationwide alert to pet owners, urging them to have their pets vaccinated.
Despite the county's swift response, many county residents did not get the message or ignored it. At the opening of hunting season around Thanksgiving, several hunters had to undergo rabies treatment after handling raccoons they shot. They included two hunters who killed a raccoon, skinned it and ate it before deciding to have it checked for rabies.
There have been only two incidents of animals confirmed to be rabid actually attacking people. In those cases, the victims ignored the warning symptoms (rabid animals may appear listless or overly friendly) and came dangerously close to the animals.
The first victim was a little boy who was attacked by a raccoon on the C&O Canal towpath. Two persons were bitten by animals that scurried away into the night, and raccoons are most highly suspected.
Holder estimated that at least 59 persons in Montgomery are receiving rabies treatment as a result of their contact with rabid or potentially rabid animals.
Four hundred more persons, mostly animal handlers and veterinarians, voluntarily chose to take the treatment to make themselves immune in case of any future contact.