It all began with a black and white kitten named Lucy, bought from a pet store three weeks ago.
Ever since Lucy died last weekend of what was later identified as rabies, fear has swept this capital city. Parents have taken their children out of school for a series of costly inoculations, and health officials have begun locating, killing and doing post-mortem testing on 27 other kittens that lived at the pet store when Lucy did.
Tests on 15 of those kittens have proved negative, the officials said Wednesday, with results from the tests on the 12 others not yet available.
But aside from those pets, four kittens from the store in addition to Lucy have also died during the last two weeks, and the New Hampshire Division of Public Health suspects that they too were rabid. No tests were done on their cadavers after they died, because the risk was not known at the time.
Wednesday morning the halls of Concord Hospital were crowded with hundreds of people waiting to be vaccinated. Officials say some 500 people may have been exposed to infected kittens at the store.
Officials sought to reassure the public Wednesday, reminding them that the only way to contract rabies is through bites, scratches or licks on open wounds or soft membranes like the mouth, nose or eyes.
But hospitals as far away as Philadelphia have sent rabies vaccine, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has sent an epidemiologist to help.
Lucy was bought three weeks ago by Denise Wardell, a 20-year-old nursing student from the nearby town of Penacook, at the Concord Aquarium and Pet Center. By the middle of last week Wardell began to notice that kitten was not well. "It had watery eyes and signs of an upper respiratory infection. The vet put it on antibiotics and sent it home," she said.
But the kitten continued to worsen on Friday. "At about midnight she woke me up," Wardell remembered. "She had urinated all over the bed and she was having seizures and having trouble breathing. Then she died."
Wardell took Lucy's body back to the veterinarian for tests, and rabies was found to be the cause of death.