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Copters to drop rabies vaccine for raccoons

Fish meal laced with an oral rabies vaccine will be released throughout north Pinellas this week in an effort to lessen the threat of rabies and prevent an outbreak like one that occurred in 1995.

Starting Wednesday, fish-meal baits containing the vaccine will be dropped from a Pinellas County mosquito control helicopter. The bait tempts raccoons to bite into a polymer or wax cylinder, which then releases the vaccine into the animals' mouths and causes them to develop an immunity to rabies.

"Hopefully, we can get it down to where there are no cases," said Dr. Kenny Mitchell, the county's animal services director. "At least we won't have the explosive numbers we had in 1995."

In 1995, a countywide rabies outbreak resulted in 30 confirmed cases and 145 people who were treated for exposure bites. Since then, the county has used the helicopter drops to vaccinate raccoons and has encouraged pet owners to have their dogs and cats vaccinated.

For several years after the outbreak, the vaccine was distributed throughout the county. Now the county is focusing on wooded areas, landfills and waterways.

Last year, there were three confirmed cases of raccoon rabies in the county and none among humans and domestic animals.

One rabid raccoon was found dead in a dog's pen near NE Coachman Road in Clearwater. Two others were fighting with dogs in Palm Harbor, one on Cypress Drive and another on Orange Point Avenue. The dogs were not harmed, and no people were attacked, Mitchell said. The three dogs previously had rabies vaccinations. The raccoon on Orange Point was euthanized, and dogs killed the other two.

Raccoons are the most common carriers of the disease in Florida.

Baits will be dropped along the Hillsborough and Pasco borders, in the Brooker Creek Preserve, along the corridor that includes Park and Gandy boulevards in St. Petersburg and in the Alligator Creek area of Safety Harbor, Mitchell said. It will take about a week to hit all the sites, he said.

It is important to have baits near the county borders as a "buffer zone" because Hillsborough and Pasco have not had the extensive vaccination efforts Pinellas has had, he said.

Baits will be dropped along the Park-Gandy corridor because it was the epicenter of the 1995 outbreak, probably due to raccoons riding garbage trucks to landfills, Mitchell said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the county $40,000 for the 30,000 baits, Mitchell said. The state is planning a similar rabies vaccine drop in Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties but is awaiting the release of funds from the USDA, he said.

Dogs and other domestic animals that eat the bait will not be harmed, but residents in the areas where the vaccine is dropped should keep their dogs away from the baits so there is enough vaccine available for the raccoons, Mitchell said.

_ Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or