The area's year-old outbreak of rabies has spread to Alexandria, with eight cases of rabid raccoons confirmed since late June, seven of them in the past week. It is the first time in memory that rabies has been found in the city.
There have been no reports of the animals biting people or pets, officials say. But as a precaution, authorities have suspended organized outings for children in the city's Cora Kelly Park, posted warning signs and are continuing a door-to-door campaign of public education.
Alexandria's raccoon population has been estimated at 1,500 to 1,800. Animal Control Superintendent Gail Snider predicts that rabid raccoons will continue to be captured frequently in Alexandria for the next six months or until the outbreak peaks.
Living in back yards and chimneys and feeding from garbage cans, raccoons thrive in wooded neighborhoods. Most of the recent pickups have come after citizens telephoned to report sighting the normally nocturnal animals out in the daylight and clearly sick.
"Incoherent, staggering, falling over their feet when they walk, just sitting there, not going anywhere when a person passes by," is how Snider describes the animals the city has picked up.
On Friday, authorities got another call just before noon, reporting that a raccoon was lying immobile in a front yard in the 1200 block of Janneys Lane. The animal was captured. Once in hand, the raccoons are killed and samples of their brain sent for testing.
Authorities caution that people should never attempt to handle strange pets or wild animals. Any bites should be washed thoroughly and given prompt medical attention and the animal that inflicted it reported to authorities. Wild animals exhibiting strange behavior also should be reported.
Rabies began proliferating in the area last year. There were 269 raccoon cases confirmed in Fairfax County last year and 267 in Loudoun County, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Cases also have been confirmed in Montgomery, Prince George's and Arlington counties and in the District of Columbia.
These cases are part of a general outbreak of rabies in the mid-Atlantic states. It seems to spread about 25 miles each year, dying down in areas where it first appears as it shows up in new places.
"It appears that the outbreak has peaked in Loudoun County," said Centers spokeswoman Katherine Lord. "Thirty-two rabid raccoons were reported in the first six months of 1983 and it is now declining there." In Fairfax, however, incidence has picked up, Lord said, with 247 cases among raccoons reported in the first six months of this year.
Snider said Alexandria officials knew the disease would eventually reach their city and had time to prepare. In March, a rabies hot line (838-5050) was set up and now is getting between 150 and 200 calls a week. The City Council passed a law making it mandatory for cats to be vaccinated.
Alexandria schoolteachers were given fliers on rabies and asked to inform students about it. About 10,000 brochures on the disease were printed and handed out door-to-door and in pet shops and animal hospitals.
Last week, authorities decided to indefinitely suspend youth activities in Cora Kelly Park. Officials have posted signs warning joggers and picnickers of the problem.
The city's three animal wardens are continuing foot patrols in areas where raccoons are common and are writing $35 citations to people whose pets are not vaccinated. Snider estimates that 80 to 85 percent of the city's dogs are now vaccinated.