More cases of rabies in animals were reported in Maryland last year than in any other state. But, as was the case in Virginia and the District of Columbia, the number of cases was smaller than reported in 1984, and health officials said the rabies epidemic, which began its march through the region in 1981, is on its way out.
Rabies, an almost invariably fatal disease that can be transmitted to humans by animal saliva, was confirmed in 760 Maryland animals last year, compared with 1,100 the previous year. In Virginia, 179 cases were reported last year, compared with 208 cases in 1984, and the number of cases reported in the District dropped to eight from 10 in 1984.
The state with the second highest number of reported cases was Texas, with 585, while 566 cases were confirmed in California.
Health officials noted that the actual number of cases is believed to be many times higher than those reported because most rabid animals die unseen in the wild.
"The numbers are going down, but it's still very prevalent," said Viola Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Maryland state health department. Most of the cases -- 672 -- involved raccoons, and few involved domestic animals, she said. But with rabies confirmed in 11 cats and one dog, she said, "We're still emphasizing the need for the vaccination of pets."
In one case last year, authorities launched a search for an unidentified woman believed to have been bitten by a rabid cat in Frederick, Md. The woman, believed to be from New Jersey, was never found, and the search was eventually called off. No case of rabies in humans has been reported in Maryland since 1976.
Of eight cases reported in the District of Columbia last year, one involved a cat and the rest were raccoons. "We've been very lucky," said Tina Harper of the city's animal health division. "We've really seen it move out of the District. It would seem that so many of the raccoons died during the rabies outbreak that their population is way down."
Like other health officials, she stressed the importance of standing clear of wild animals and inoculating domestic pets.