A sharp increase in the number of rabid raccoons in the District of Columbia, primarily around Rock Creek Park, has prompted city officials to begin a new antirabies effort that includes an informational campaign and the trapping of suspect animals.
City public health officials have confirmed 36 cases of rabid raccoons in the District since last October, with more than 20 having been found since March. And last week, the city had its first case of a person bitten by an apparently diseased raccoon.
The rabid animals have been concentrated in Ward 3, the part of the city west of Rock Creek Park, where 27 cases have been confirmed, said Public Health Commissioner Ernest Hardaway.
There have been seven cases in Ward 4 and two in Ward 2, both of which border Rock Creek Park on the east. Large numbers of raccoons live in the park, Hardaway said.
The rabies outbreak in the Washington area, which began last year, has been the worst here in recent memory and one of the most intense in the country, according to local health experts.
The outbreak started in suburban areas and has been particularly bad in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. The first D.C. case of rabies in a raccoon was confirmed Oct. 24.
The city now is printing 10,000 black-and-orange posters picturing a raccoon and warning people to stay away from wild animals, including stray dogs and cats. It already put up 500 warning notices near the Northwest area where the man was bitten last week.
Extra workers are being detailed to the animal control center, which responds to reports of strangely acting animals. In addition, the public health commission has bought 24 new traps, which residents may borrow to trap raccoons they suspect of being rabid, Hardaway said.
The city also is trying to get the word out to undocumented aliens that they should not be afraid of being turned over to immigration authorities if they come to the health commission to report contact with an animal they suspect is diseased, Hardaway said.
Last week's bite victim was a 27-year-old undocumented worker from El Salvador, Hardaway said. He was taken to Washington Hospital Center for treatment, but left while the facility and the city were negotiating over who would pay for his treatment.
The city eventually agreed to pay for the antirabies serum, which costs about $800 per person, and a doctor at the hospital center volunteered to donate his services, Hardaway said.
After the agreement was reached, the commission found the man at his home and returned him to the center for treatment. The treatment used to consist of a long series of painful shots through the stomach, but now involves five shots in the shoulder.
"Anyone residing in the District of Columbia, we treat first and resolve the question of payment later," Hardaway said. Undocumented workers will receive all necessary treatment without being reported to authorities, he said.
The biting occurred on May 17 near 16th and Lamont streets NW when the man climbed a tree, caught the animal and began playing with it, Hardaway said. The incident caused particular concern to the city because children had been playing in the area, he added.
Hardaway said he went to the area, home to many of the city's Hispanics, last week to talk with day-care workers and others. He said he now feels there is no reason to believe others were bitten.
The 10,000 posters, in both English and Spanish, will start going up soon in stores and other public places throughout Wards 1, 2, 3 and 4, the areas with the most risk, Hardaway said. They will go up in the city's remaining four wards soon after, he said.
The city is asking that anyone who kills an animal with a car report it to the commission so the animal can be tested for rabies.
To report an animal suspected of being rabid or to borrow one of the city's traps to catch animals, the 24-hour number to call is 576-6664.