They look like small brown bricks. They smell like fish. And they just might be the answer to reducing Anne Arundel County's rabid raccoon population.
For the second consecutive year, the county's Department of Health will dispense Raboral V-RG, an oral rabies vaccine, throughout the Annapolis peninsula, which stretches from Crownsville, through Annapolis, to the Bay Bridge. Health department officials and volunteers plan to distribute 9,000 doses of the vaccine, which are embedded in fish meal, on Monday.
So far, officials say, results of the pilot project have been positive.
In 1997, 24 rabid raccoons were reported on the peninsula. A year later, the number dropped to 11. As of the end of September, only one rabid raccoon has been reported. The infected animal was captured in January.
"The decrease would suggest that the vaccine has been a success," said Dr. Joseph Horman, a Health Department veterinarian. "I'm pleased with the results."
Since 1983, rabies in the wild animal population has been a statewide problem, especially in Anne Arundel County. The epidemic has been blamed on West Virginia hunters who brought two rabid raccoons from Florida to the area 20 years ago.
Rabies is a fatal viral infection that poses a significant health threat because wild animals often come in contact with people and their pets.
Last year, the county had 73 reported cases of rabid animals -- the most of any county in the state. Sixty-four of those cases involved raccoons.
This year, there have been 37 reported cases of infected animals, compared with 55 by the same time last year, Horman said.
Cape May County in southern New Jersey has been distributing the vaccine since 1992, said Hank Heacock, chief environmental officer with that county's health department. The 265-square-mile county had little problem with rabid animals until 1995, when a number of infected animals migrated south.
Since then, there have been 113 cases of rabid animals in the county -- more than 80 percent of those reported during the 1995 epidemic. The last reported case of rabies was in early 1997, Heacock said.
"We believe the vaccine has helped us," Heacock said, adding that the county distributes 38,975 vaccine doses each fall.
In Anne Arundel County, the bait will be distributed by hand and by a county police helicopter in the less populated areas at a distance of one per every 2.5 acres. Horman said the peninsula, which represents 8 percent of the county, was chosen as the test site because it is home to about 25 percent of the county's total reported rabid animal population.
"A disparity of rabid animals was occurring there," Horman said.
Health officials will go out several weeks after the bait distribution to test how many raccoons ingested the genetically engineered vaccine. Last year, Horman said, 30 of the 60 raccoons tested had ingested the one-time vaccine.
Horman said this year's results will determine whether the project will continue next year. Each vaccine dose costs $1.47 and will not harm people, pets or other wildlife if ingested, he said.
"We need to continue this for several years to maximize the number of animals vaccinated," Horman said.
If property owners do not want the vaccine distributed on their land, they can call the Health Department at 410-222-7186.