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County rabies program earns national honor

(ran South edition)

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

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

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

In response, officials launched a new program. Using helicopters, they blanketed the county 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 program was one of 50 ideas from around the nation named as a semifinalist by the Innovations in American Government Awards, a competition co-sponsored by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

In July, the top five programs will win $100,000 each. The awards try to recognize government programs that are creative, forward-thinking, effective and able to be replicated elsewhere.

"That's what I think the committee looked at and what struck them" about the rabies bait 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' rabies bait program was the only one from Florida to be a semifinalist. Pinellas was the first county in the country to distribute the rabies vaccine from the air, Agnew said.