Maryland health officials, seeking to cope with a prolonged and severe rabies epidemic among wild animals, are joining forces with counterparts in Delaware next month to vaccinate 4,000 to 5,000 raccoons just south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Raccoons, which are the primary carriers of rabies in Maryland, will be captured, inoculated and released by 30 technicians. Officials said the program is the first of its kind in the country.

The project will stretch from the Elk River in Cecil County -- in far northeast Maryland, the area currently hardest hit -- along a 20-mile stretch out to the Delaware River. Workers will attempt to capture up to 80 percent of the raccoon population in the 100-square-mile area.

The center of the rabies problem this year is in the western portion of Cecil County, said Dr. Jack Grigor, veterinary epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Since January, he said, 36 cases have been reported in Cecil, compared with only one case during all of 1986. All but two of the rabies cases this year were reported among raccoons.

Grigor said the goal of the vaccination program is to prevent the spread of raccoon rabies to the Delmarva Peninsula. Delaware and the Eastern Shore have no reports of rabies so far this year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Grigor said the location "provides a unique opportunity to get the raccoons in a relatively narrow, confined setting." He said such a project could not be attempted in a wide, open area.

For the past three years Maryland has led the nation in the number of rabies cases reported among animals and this year ranks second to Texas. State health officials report 217 cases this year, down from 386 cases during the same period last year. The Centers for Disease Control reports that Texas has 233 cases.

Grigor said that although the raccoon vaccination program is a joint effort with Delaware officials, Maryland will foot the $270,000 bill for the three-month project.

Rabies is invariably fatal to animal carriers and usually is fatal to humans, unless they are treated before the disease's symptoms take hold. An infectious disease of the central nervous system, rabies can be transmitted to humans by animal saliva that penetrates the skin through a bite, cut or sore.

No people have been reported to have contracted the disease since the Maryland epidemic began six years ago.

The rabies outbreak started in the Allegheny Mountains in Western Maryland in 1981, and Grigor said the disease has traveled east about 25 miles each year since then. Last year, the Baltimore area and the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay were hardest hit.

In response, several Maryland counties have established low-cost vaccination clinics for dogs and cats. In Prince George's County, for example, 43 clinics were held in May at which 3,774 dogs and 951 cats were vaccinated.

Maryland law requires rabies vaccines for dogs and cats. Montgomery and Prince George's counties require licensing for dogs and cats and vaccination is necessary to receive a license. Howard County requires licensing for dogs only.

Martha Lamborn, manager of field operations for the Montgomery County Department of Animal Control, said people "even in the suburbs close in to Washington" "While the worst is over, there is still rabies in the area and it will remain for a long time to come."

-- Zoologist Keith Marshall

should be watchful of raccoons in their neighborhoods. She said that through June 15 there have been 51 rabies cases in Montgomery, 43 of which have occurred in raccoons. She said the other cases were one groundhog, five foxes, a cow and a bat. She said no dogs have been infected.

Montgomery reached a peak with 434 reported cases of rabies in 1983, declining to 119 in 1984, 26 in 1985 and up slightly to 34 in 1986. In Prince George's, there have been seven rabies cases, keeping steady with last year's eight reported cases in the same period. Prince George's peak was 239 cases in 1984.

Howard County also experienced a record number that year with 175 cases. After significant drops in the past two years, Howard is experiencing an upturn this year with 14 cases reported since mid February, as compared with only four cases last year.

Grigor said rabies outbreaks "tend to move in waves with a high number of cases followed by a low number, and shortly the figures are up again." He explained that rabies tends to destroy a large part of the population of the infected species -- in this area it is generally raccoons -- and then the number of cases drop. But once the population builds itself up again, the opportunity for the disease to spread is renewed.

Keith Marshall, a zoologist for the Prince George's health department, said people "may have a tendency to ignore rabies because the numbers are down. While the worst is over, there is still rabies in the area and it will remain for a long time to come."