A genetically engineered rabies vaccine hidden in fish bait was fed early this week to raccoons on Virginia's Eastern Shore in the first effort nationwide to immunize wild animals against the deadly virus.

The yearlong experiment in Accomack County on uninhabited Parramore Island involves distributing about 3,000 of the lures to 400 raccoons, according to a report in the Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Star.

Virginia health officials told the newspaper that if the experiment is successful, it could lead to a widespread program of protecting wildlife and people against rabies, a viral disease that can be fatal to people and animals if untreated.

The rabies epidemic that spread through the Washington region a few years ago has subsided to about a quarter of its strength. Reported cases in Virginia have fallen from 172 in 1989 to 127 so far this year, said Suzanne Jenkins, assistant state epidemiologist for the state Department of Health.

The Eastern Shore research is expected to interest scientists in Washington, as the District is believed to have one of the largest populations of urban raccoons in the world.

The newspaper said officials selected Parramore Island, 4.5 miles offshore, for the vaccine research because of its isolation from the mainland and because its population of raccoons has not been exposed to the virus.

"If the rabies had been there, it would have been difficult to find out what effect the vaccine was having," said Barbara Mitchell, a Health Department spokeswoman.

Researchers expected the raccoons to take the bait within a day or two and start developing antibodies to the disease shortly afterward, the newspaper reported.

By today the scientists were expected to begin catching the raccoons, drawing their blood and testing them for antibodies.

The vaccine is made from a part of the rabies virus that is not infectious, so animals that come in contact with it will not contract the disease, the newspaper reported.

Jenkins told the paper that the vaccine has been tested in more than 35 species of animals with no ill effects.