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Pinellas serves as model for rabies program

A pilot anti-rabies program in Pinellas County worked so well, officials are taking it statewide.

The program employs helicopters to drop matchbook-size baits containing liquid vaccines. The bait and vaccine are eaten by raccoons, which immunizes them against the disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is drafting an agreement with Florida to expand Pinellas County's vaccination program, said Debbie Clark of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Gainesville.

Clark, who is writing the agreement, said it is too soon to know how much the state will pay for the program.

The program would first target Central Florida, near Interstate 4, where the numbers of rabid animals have increased, Clark said, and expand from there. Clark said officials expect to begin the program during the dry season next year.

The state effort could take up to 10 years to be effective, said Dr. Lisa Conti, state public health veterinarian.

"We want to base the program off of Pinellas County because it was so successful," Clark said.

The program, which began in Pinellas in 1995, decreased the number of confirmed rabies cases to one or two per year, said Dr. Kenny Mitchell, Pinellas County Animal Services director.

In 1995, 145 people were treated for exposure to rabies, and there were 30 confirmed rabies cases among animals.

The bait-dropping program was begun in North Pinellas and mid county, and took two years to knock down the rabies rates, Mitchell said. It was aggressively pursued for the next four years, he said.

In 1995, the rate of human exposure to rabies in Pinellas "was explosive," Mitchell said. He said the outbreak was partly due to the increase in population and increased contact with wildlife. The primary carriers were raccoons.

The county targeted the raccoons, which carry one of two strains of rabies found in Florida. In addition to dropping baits, animal services provided rabies vaccinations for pets and quarantined areas where pets may have been exposed to the virus.

"It did work," Mitchell said. "It may not have totally eliminated rabies in the county, but our main goal was to establish control."