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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

Ohio battling to halt deadly strain of rabies

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A war against raccoon rabies is being waged in northeast Ohio as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of the state.

If the war analogy sounds like an exaggeration, just listen to the terms tossed around by those doing the fighting: "aerial drops," "quarantine," and "breach in the barrier."

Then there's the ominous warning from rabies expert Dennis Slate: "This can kill any warm-blooded animal, including humans, dead as dead."

Rabies is a viral disease affecting the nervous system that is almost always fatal. It's spread by the bite or scratch of an infected animal.

The first shot in the raccoon rabies war was fired in July when a rabid raccoon was caught east of Cleveland in Lake County - the first time raccoon rabies had been detected that far west.

The reason for the concern? raccoon rabies is not native to Ohio, so any spread westward from the eastern United States increases the chances for the virus infecting pets, domestic livestock, and humans.

In addition, unlike other wild animals that occasionally contract the disease, raccoons are more apt to come into direct contact with humans and pets. They're frequently seen in urban and suburban areas, not just the countryside. Just ask anyone who's chased the bushy-tailed critters away from their garbage or garden.

Though state and federal officials stress the disease appears largely contained to the Cleveland area, Larry Vasko and his colleagues aren't taking any chances.

Mr. Vasko, deputy commissioner for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said his office will begin a public education campaign this fall to warn the public to avoid raccoons.

Dr. Kathleen Smith, the Ohio Department of Health's public health veterinarian, said Lucas County is smart to be pro-active.

"If we don't get this under control in northeast Ohio, it will be a significant problem in the rest of the state," she said. "This [raccoon rabies] is a unique strain of rabies. It's not natural to Ohio, and we know this strain spreads very rapidly and affects a high percentage of animals. It spills over into other wild animals and into pets and livestock, so a lot more exposure is possible."

And, she added, rabies experts still don't know how raccoon rabies has, in the words of health experts, "breached the barrier" set up to prevent its spread westward. That means if a rabid raccoon made its way to Lake County in northeast Ohio, others might be able to get farther west.

In 1996, raccoon rabies showed up in two raccoons in extreme northeast Ohio. The next year, the disease took off, infecting 62 more raccoons in that area. As a result, the state health department and other agencies established an "immune barrier" to stop the disease's spread. Bait pellets containing rabies vaccine were dropped by hand or airplane along a corridor near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border more than 20 miles wide.

"The whole premise behind it is we try to vaccinate some of the free-ranging animals so they're healthy, so if they fight with a sick animal they don't spread disease," said Andy Montoney, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife service program.

Raccoon rabies stayed on the other side until July when a rabid raccoon was found in Lake County. Further testing turned up 6 more cases in Lake County, 14 in Geauga County (just south of Lake County), and 1 in eastern Cuyahoga County.

State and local health officials in that area have dropped thousands of bait pellets and increased their surveillance and testing of suspicious raccoons.

On Tuesday, state health department workers, federal authorities, as well as state health officials in five other states, will spread 5 million bait pellets from Lake Erie in Ohio south toward Tennessee. The campaign is done annually, but this year will be expanded in Ohio to include more of the Cleveland metropolitan area.

"If we're successful with our interventions, we hope to be able to contain this breach," said Mr. Slate, national rabies management coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Human rabies cases are rare. Only one or two people die annually in the United States from rabies, with the last known human rabies case in Ohio occurring in 1970. However, preventive measures to limit the risk to humans, livestock, and pets, cost millions of dollars.

"The reason we don't have a lot of human rabies is because of all the efforts put into preventing it," Dr. Smith said.

"We know that when raccoon rabies comes into an area, there's a tenfold increase in people who need post-exposure treatment."

She added that one of the challenges is Ohio's lax pet immunization laws. In the late 1990s, state health officials and others were unsuccessful in their attempts to pass mandatory vaccinations for dogs and cats, making Ohio one of the few states not to have such a law, she said. Many cities and counties, however, require mandatory vaccination.

Mr. Vasko said Lucas County's educational efforts should get under way soon. His department is considering a range of options, including letters to local veterinarians, educational letters and presentations to local schools, and educational efforts aimed at those who work outdoors as well as hunters.

Karen Gerold, director of environmental health for the Erie County Health Department, said her colleagues aren't planning an educational campaign like Lucas County.

But she said her staff has begun sending in raccoons for testing to see if any test positive for rabies. That step, which is rarely taken, was first done last month when three raccoons were examined; none tested positive.

Contact Luke Shockman at: lshockman@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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