The spread of Maryland's rabies outbreak into St. Mary's County was officially noted two weeks ago when four raccoons found here tested positive for the disease.
"These were the first cases of rabid anything that I've seen in the 12 years that I've worked here," said local health department official Thomas Russell. He said two persons who touched raccoons found to be rabid had to undergo a series of antirabies shots. Several dogs had to be killed after contact with infected raccoons, all of which were found in the northern part of the county, Russell said.
In neighboring Charles County, a rabid raccoon walked into Southern Maryland Marine boating supply store in White Plains May 2.
"The day was hot, the door was open and the 'coon just sauntered into the office. Everyone else ran out," said Gary Davis, an inspector for the county health department.
Animal control workers caught the raccoon in a noose and took it to the Charles County shelter, where it died that day. A young girl received the six-injection antirabies series because her parents thought she might have touched the raccoon's saliva, Davis said.
May 7, a salivating raccoon was found in a Charles County barn, Davis said. It was killed, but the unvaccinated family dog touched it and is in a six-month quarantine, Davis said.
In Charles, seven raccoons have tested positive for rabies, compared with seven for all of 1984 and none previously, Davis said.
"There is definitely an epidemic among raccoons and we're trying to prevent the disease from spilling over into the domestic pets or human population," said Mary Kramer, communicable disease coordinator for Charles.
The county is testing only those raccoons "exposed to human contact or domestic animals," she said, and officials believe the number of rabid animals is much higher than those that have tested positive.
Officials said the rabies outbreak had its roots in Georgia in 1948.
"In subsequent years it moved up the Eastern Seaboard through the mountain ranges," said James M. Story, acting director of the Maryland Environmental Services office in Charles.
From the Carolinas, raccoons trapped for sport started showing up in West Virginia, then in Western Maryland and Frederick, Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties, Story said.
Montgomery's peak year was 1983, when 434 rabid animals were found. In 1984, 119 rabid animals, including 97 raccoons, were found. In Howard County, 175 rabies cases, 155 of them in raccoons, were reported in 1984.
Officials in Charles and St. Mary's are urging residents to exercise extreme caution when confronted with a raccoon, skunk, groundhog or fox that is acting strangely -- "either too friendly or too ornery," Russell said. All pet owners are urged to take advantage of county-run pet inoculation clinics. The charge is $3.
For times and locations of May and June clinics, call 475-9851 in St. Mary's and 934-9294 in Charles County.