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Not willing to tamper with success, the Niagara County Health Department and Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine are making plans for a fourth year of airdrops of rabies vaccine in 1998.

County Environmental Health Director James J. Devald said the airdrops, which began in 1995, originally were scheduled to last only three years.

"I've heard there is some federal money they (Cornell) are going to get," which would be a first for the program, Devald said.

Up to now, the county contributed cash toward the effort, which cost about $180,000 this year. The county's share was $59,100. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources provided two planes and pilots for the drop, which occurred Sept. 14, because of its desire to prevent a rabies outbreak from spreading across the border.

The process of dropping raccoon bait laced with rabies vaccine was a major success. The number of confirmed cases of rabid animals in the county plummeted from 153 in 1995 to 28 in 1996 and 11 this year -- seven raccoons, two bats, one skunk and one fox.

Devald said, however, that rabies runs in cycles, and reports from the central Southern Tier indicate that a new wave of rabies is moving up from Pennsylvania. This happens every four to five years, he said.

Counties where raccoon rabies is on the rise this year include Chemung, Tioga, Tompkins, Cortland, Cayuga, Onondaga and Steuben, Devald reported.

He has asked members of the county's Rabies Task Force, which includes health, animal control and law enforcement representatives, to submit suggestions for cost savings in the program by Jan. 9.

Devald said 1998 plans are not firm, but possibilities include a targeted airdrop instead of the countywide distribution of baits, although he described the chances of that as "remote."

He also said there has been discussion of spreading the airdrops into Erie, Genesee and Orleans counties. This year, the only part of Erie County where rabies vaccine was dropped by air was Grand Island.

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