An effort to create a rabies-free barrier along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal has failed to reach 80 percent of the raccoons in the area, raising the possibility that the onslaught of the disease cannot be halted, project supervisor Nathan Garner says.

Garner said last week that the Delmarva Rabies Initiative is being retargeted north of the canal, which bisects the peninsula through Cecil County and New Castle County, Del.

"It all depends on what rabies does. It's starting to spread quickly now through some parts of Delaware," he said. "If we find that rabies crosses the canal before next year's vaccination program, we may be in jeopardy of not setting up the rabies barrier in time.

"We feel we still have a long way to go," he said. "We're nowhere near to getting 80 percent of the population."

Maryland and Delaware launched the rabies program in August with the goal of vaccinating enough raccoons -- at least 80 percent -- to stop the potentially fatal disease from spreading farther south into the Delmarva Peninsula.

Rabies has been moving east from West Virginia since 1981 at the rate of about 25 miles per year, and appeared east of the Susquehanna River in Cecil County last year for the first time, officials said.

Delaware recorded its first rabies case Nov. 11. As of last week, eight rabid raccoons have been found in northern Delaware, said state rabies coordinator David Wolfe.

The 1987 program to trap and inoculate raccoons in the five-mile swath south of the canal ended Oct. 31.

On Dec. 1, wildlife biologists at a field station in Chesapeake City began inoculating and tagging raccoons from the north side of the canal .

"We're not only trying to establish a rabies barrier but also trying to learn more about {the raccoons'} movements from their homes and how they cross the C&D Canal," said Garner, who works with the Center for Special Pathogens in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

In the recent effort, 1,400 raccoons were inoculated against the deadly disease, far less than the 5,000 predicted.

Delaware's Wolfe predicted the $270,000 program, which is being paid for by Maryland, will work, as long as hunters do not defeat it by taking raccoons across the canal.