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Rabies plan gets national recognition

It was 1995, and Pinellas County faced a countywide rabies outbreak that threatened both people and their pets.

After decades with virtually no cases of rabies, county officials suddenly had 30 in a single year. Rabid raccoons spread the disease to cats, otters, even a horse. A total of 145 people were treated for exposure to the disease.

"A blowout" is how assistant county director for veterinary services Dr. Welch Agnew recalls it. "It was a crisis. We quarantined portions of the county."

In response, officials launched a new program. Using helicopters, they blanketed Pinellas with matchbox-sized squares of fish meal, each containing a dose of rabies vaccine.

Within four years, that program had helped whittle the number of rabies cases in Pinellas to a single case.

On Thursday, the effort also won Pinellas County a rare recognition. The rabies bait vaccine program was one of 50 ideas from around the nation to be recognized by the Innovations in American Government Awards, a competition co-sponsored by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Pinellas County's program was named as a semifinalist. Other semifinalists include programs that work to curb abuse of the elderly in California, create a public boarding school in Washington, D.C., to prepare disadvantaged kids for college, and use a herd of goats to graze on unwanted weeds in Denver. In July, the top five programs each will win $100,000.

In the contest's 17 years, three Florida programs have won the top award, including Hillsborough County's indigent health care plan in 1995 and the state's Healthy Kids program in 1996.

The awards try to recognize government programs that are creative, forward-thinking, effective and can be replicated elsewhere.

"That's what I think the committee looked at and what struck them" about the Pinellas program, said Carl Fillichio, vice president of the Council for Excellence in Government, Harvard's partner in the awards. "This was a public model that's really transferable to other problems."

Organizers started with about 1,000 entries, and Pinellas County's rabies program was the only one from Florida to make the list of semifinalists.

"Really?" Agnew said. "Cool."

Pinellas was the first county in the country to try distributing the rabies vaccine from the air, Agnew said.

The county also stepped up its efforts to license and vaccinate dogs and cats. The number of pets licensed in the county rose from 90,000 in 1995 to 170,000 a few years later. Today the number is slightly higher, but officials estimate they haven't vaccinated even half the 400,000 dogs and cats believed to be living in Pinellas.

"We just really can't emphasize enough the importance of pet vaccination," Agnew said.

Using a county mosquito control helicopter, Pinellas still drops rabies bait, though in recent years the effort has focused mostly on buffer zones with Pasco and Hillsborough. This year, vaccinations will be more widespread, partly because the number of rabies cases last year crept back up to five.

"We were the first county to do that and it's kind of a tribute to the County Commission back in '95 when they gave us the okay to go ahead and do it," Agnew said.

That year, the bait alone cost $200,000.

But the stakes were high.

"We didn't want it reaching the beaches," Agnew said. "If you've got people who are coming to your beaches and you've got rabid raccoons running around . . . that's a disincentive to tourism."