The best means to control rabies is prevention and county health officials, who have not forgotten the rabies epidemic that swept Harfordfive years ago, are again trying to educate residents that preventive treatment can halt the spread of the disease.
John T. Lamb, director of environmental health for the county Health Department, said "The epidemic peaked a few years ago but you have to be concerned about complacency setting in."
During 1986, there were 183 laboratory-confirmed cases. The epidemic nearly decimated the county's raccoon population.
"After you've been through one of these epidemics, you find the population is more educated and we're handling prevention in a more sophisticated way," Lamb said. "But, the disease is still a threat."
The number of rabies cases dropped in succeeding years, but began to climb again in 1989 when 25 cases were reported. In 1990, the number of cases jumpedto 41, county officials said.
Lamb said "little surges" continue to occur because pockets of animals were missed when the epidemic moved northeast through Harford. The epidemic began in Western Maryland.
So far this year, six cases of rabies -- four raccoons, one skunkand one fox -- have been confirmed, county officials said. Lamb saidthe cases have come from throughout the county.
Rabies becomes a threat this time of the year because residents and pets are more likely to encounter wildlife. With longer days and shorter nights, nocturnal animals have less nighttime to hunt food for their young, said Mark Hoffman, associate director in the Wildlife Division of the state Department of Natural Resources.
"As the nights get shorter, a lotof nocturnal mammals, such as fox and raccoons, have less time to be nocturnal," Hoffman said. "They spend more time hunting during the daylight hours."
The preventive measures offered by the county include vaccination clinics for cats and dogs, and pre- and post-exposure treatment for residents.
Vaccinations for cats and dogs were conducted last weekend. Residents who missed the clinic should contact their veterinarian, said David Carney, director of health promotion and disease prevention for the Health Department.
The county also offers a series of pre-exposure vaccination clinics for "people of highrisk," such as veterinarians, hunters, environmental health workers and others who work with animals.
County officials said that people who work with animals should have pre-exposure vaccinations, which makes post-exposure treatment easier.
Complicated situations arisewhen someone is bitten by a rabid or suspected rabid animal.
"It almost dictates putting an animal to sleep," Lamb said. "That's the only way to determine if an animal has rabies. A person who has been bitten and can't find the cat or dog is subjected to a lot of painful rabies shots."
Post-exposure treatment is given to people who haveconfirmed or suspected exposure to rabies. The county doesn't administer post-exposure treatment but provides the vaccine to a physician or hospital.
Since last June, the county has had 44 cases of post-exposure treatment at a cost of $16,307, said Debbie Leight, administrative officer for the Health Department.
The year before, the county had 48 cases at a cost of $17,651.
Leight said post-exposure treatment is more expensive if residents have not had pre-exposure vaccinations. The county bills third parties -- such as insurance companies -- for the treatment, she said.