Anne Arundel vaccinates raccoons against rabies

Raccoons digging in your trash might seem a relatively minor nuisance, but close interaction with the critters — the No. 1 carriers of rabies in the United States — could prove dangerous to you and your pets.

To combat the potential risk, the Anne Arundel County Health Department began Wednesday its annual rabies vaccination project, with the goal of immunizing more than 70,000 raccoons.

Thirty-three teams consisting of workers from the county and state health departments, county animal control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services plan to distribute the oral vaccine, a brick-shaped object made of fishmeal and polymers, over the next four weeks in wooded areas around the county. Workers will also use a county police helicopter to distribute a differently packaged version of the vaccine, which resembles a ketchup package, designed to be more accessible to juvenile raccoons.

The effort, funded by a grant from Wildlife Services, has reduced animal rabies by more than 90 percent since it began in the county in 1998, said Dr. Joseph Horman, public health veterinarian for the Anne Arundel Health Department. Each vaccination costs an average of $1.31. The county plans to distribute about 72,000.

"It's certainly been successful," said Horman. "If we can control it in the raccoon, then we can avoid spillover to the cat, the fox, the skunk, the deer, the horse."

In 2009, the county reported four cases of animal rabies — three raccoons and a cat — far below the 71 cases reported in 1998 and the 96 cases in 1997. The project began on the Annapolis peninsula, an area popular with raccoons because of the abundance of waterways, and was expanded to the entire county in 2003.

Maryland hasn't reported a case of rabies in a human since 1976, Horman said.

Kyle Shannon, coordinator of the Oral Rabies Vaccine Project and an environmental health specialist, dropped some vaccines in the Crownsville community of Greenwood Acres on Wednesday. Shannon said the vaccine has no side effects and has been found to be safe for more than 60 species of animals, including cats and dogs.

But the high fat content in the fishmeal can cause diarrhea in dogs, Shannon said.

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