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    County employs bait drops to battle rabies

    Pinellas is spending about $40,000 and targeting north Pinellas to prevent raccoons from spreading the disease.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    OLDSMAR -- As part of its ongoing fight against rabid raccoons, a county helicopter will drop fish meal bait laced with liquid rabies vaccine in Oldsmar and the Brooker Creek area during the next month.

    The idea of targeting north Pinellas, said Dr. Kenny Mitchell, the county's animal services director, is to create a buffer zone with Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Authorities are concerned that a rabid raccoon wandering into Pinellas from a neighboring county could trigger a new outbreak.

    The county's first reported case of rabies this year occurred Friday in Palm Harbor when a rabid raccoon attacked a dog, Mitchell said.

    "Obviously, it is not eradicated," he said. "That's why we need to continue."

    Bait will be distributed in the area north of Curlew Road and east of the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal through April.

    Raccoons are the most common carriers of rabies in Florida. Pinellas County averages about one case of the raccoon strain of rabies a year. County officials want to avoid an outbreak like the one in 1995, when Pinellas had 30 confirmed cases, treated 145 people for exposure or bites and issued alerts and quarantines.

    "If we can lower the cases until it is finally gone, then we would be happy for all of us," Mitchell said. "We haven't totally eradicated it, but we have greatly reduced the threat."

    County animal officials also are targeting north Pinellas because that was one of the areas where the disease appeared in 1995.

    Before the outbreak in 1995, Pinellas County went about 30 years without a reported case of the raccoon strain of rabies, Mitchell said. That's probably because Pinellas is a peninsula, which made it harder for the disease to make its way into the county.

    Most likely, the disease was spread into Pinellas from raccoons in neighboring counties, Mitchell said. That's why it is important to create a buffer zone in north Pinellas, which borders those counties.

    Today, a Pinellas County Mosquito Control helicopter will drop the baits on an area 2 miles on either side of Park Boulevard and Gandy Boulevard, Mitchell said. That area of mid Pinellas was the "epicenter of our 1995 outbreak, which surprised the heck out of us."

    Animal services will dispense the bait in wooded areas, creeks and waterways and other areas where raccoons live. The bait also will be dropped at landfills in the Gateway area, Mitchell said.

    The 1995 outbreak in mid Pinellas most likely was caused by raccoons riding in trucks hauling trash to the landfills from other counties, Mitchell said.

    After the outbreak, the county completed an $800,000, five-year program that distributed the oral rabies vaccine throughout the county. This year's effort will cost about $40,000, with about half coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    The square baits, which cost about $1.50 each, are brown and have a fish-meal shell that contains red liquid vaccine. The shell or pouch is designed to rupture when bitten by a raccoon, releasing an immunizing dose to the animal's mouth.

    The baits, which are not harmful to pets, should be left alone if found. Anyone who gets the red liquid on his skin should wash that area with soap and water and call Animal Services. Parents should tell children to leave the bait alone.

    Mitchell also said that pet owners should vaccinate their pets, not feed wild animals and refrain from feeding pets outdoors because the food will attract raccoons.

    "That an open invitation for a raccoon," Mitchell said. "There aren't that many dogs that can take on a raccoon one-on-one."

    For information, call Pinellas County Animal Services at (727) 582-2600.

    - Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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