- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

Masoud Faryadi couldn't believe his eyes when he looked into his fireplace and saw a set of claws trying to tear down a board that held the creature captive.

The claws belonged to a rabid raccoon that had fallen down the chimney.

"All you could see was the board banging against the frame of the fireplace and his claws sticking out of the sides," said Mr. Faryadi, 27, of Burke, Va. "It was pretty scary."

The crazed animal was the third such diseased raccoon found in Fairfax County in the space of a few weeks, and the 30th rabid animal caught since January.

Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system that is almost always fatal in animals and humans once symptoms appear. A rabid animal is either so passive it can be approached and touched by a human being or so agitated that it will attack anything or anyone it sees.

Something strange continues to go on in Virginia: Rabid animals are appearing in record numbers something that isn't occurring a few miles away across the Potomac River.

Last year, homeowners in heavily populated Northern Virginia were on constant alert for rabid foxes, squirrels and raccoons. The animals chased pedestrians and one a snarling fox ran wild at a child's birthday party near Springfield.

More than 100 cases of animal rabies were confirmed in Fairfax by the end of the year compared with 68 in 1998, county officials said last week. The entire state recorded 581 cases in 1999, up from 549 in 1998.

The number of animal cases confirmed so far indicates this year may be another record breaker for Fairfax County.

For example, several hours after the rabid raccoon dropped down the Faryadi's chimney, another was found dead in a window well of a Fairfax family's home. Several days later, a third was killed by two neighborhood dogs following a backyard brawl. And a fourth was euthanized late last month after a Lorton homeowner trapped it under a milk crate after finding it on the front porch.

Meanwhile and no one knows exactly why Maryland's animal rabies rate has dropped steadily over the past several years, state health officials there say.

Last year's 394 animal cases reported throughout Maryland was a drop from the 439 reported in 1998, and the 619 cases in 1997, according to Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"Maryland is definitely on the downswing." said Dr. Clifford Johnson, a state public health veterinarian in Annapolis.

"[Virginia's] increase … can be linked to a number of things," said Linda Smith, a spokeswoman for the Rabies Control Program for the Fairfax County Health Department.

For one thing, authorities are testing more creatures at the request of residents who come across the sick animals either in their back yards or on the side of the street, Mrs. Smith said.

Also, new building developments have forced the critters out of the woods and into the the newly built neighborhoods. "They really have no other place to go," Mrs. Smith said.

Rabies has been cyclical, peaking every five to eight years, since the first big wave of cases swept the state in 1982, health officials said.

"Initially we see a lot of rabies cases, but then the numbers go down," said Dr. Elizabeth Barrett, an epidemiologist with the state's health department in Richmond.

Dr. Johnson also says there are fewer rabies cases in Maryland because health officials there test only those animals that have come into contact with people.

"So it really depends how the numbers are kept," Dr. Johnson said.

Raccoons, skunks and foxes are the most likely to carry the disease, but the number of cats found with the fatal virus is increasing slightly and could pose a greater threat to humans, Dr. Barrett said.

The virus that causes the fatal disease is transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal. Anyone who may have been exposed to the virus should see a doctor to begin a five-shot vaccination program to prevent the symptoms from appearing, Dr. Barrett said.

State officials urge residents to vaccinate their pets to prevent them from catching the disease if they come in contact with a rabid animal.

Homeowners should close any openings that raccoons and squirrels might use to get inside a home. In Mr. Faryadi's case, the chimney was left open after a hail storm earlier this month blew the hood off.

"I just never realized this could happen," Mr. Faryadi said. "My family has lived in this house for 12 years, and we've never had any problems with wildlife. This is dangerous stuff, especially when the animals are rabid. It's not something you play around with."

State and local officials in Virginia hope a new oral vaccine that's being distributed in piles of baited food placed east of Interstate 95 in Fairfax County will stop the spread of the disease.

Dr. Johnson said the same vaccine worked on the Anne Arundel Peninsula in Maryland, where about two years ago a group of wildlife experts distributed fishmeal bait blocks in areas where raccoons were often seen.

About 20 million packs of baited food have been distributed nationwide since the early 1990s and no adverse effects have been recorded, officials said.

"We're going to keep our fingers crossed and hope this vaccine will work," Mrs. Smith said.

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