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Although rabies cases in Erie County are about to surpass last year's level, county health officials say that's no reason to rush into an air drop program to vaccinate animals against the infectious disease.

Erie County can't afford the program without some help, said Dr. Arnold Lubin, county health commissioner, even though he acknowledges air drops like those used each fall in Niagara and Chautauqua counties would help eradicate rabies here.

The county's 33 verified rabies cases so far this year have sent about 100 people to doctors for post-exposure treatment -- a series of five shots, county health officials said.

In 1997, there were 35 rabies cases recorded in the county and 144 people needed the post-exposure shots, health officials said.

An air drop program would cut those figures, according to Lubin, "maybe not in the first six weeks, but maybe in the next year."

And while no one has died of rabies in the region, the drops would make a difference for lots of county residents, especially those who have faced post-exposure shots or who frequently come into contact with wildlife, Lubin said.

"We've got enough people who are woodsy-type people out here -- people who hunt, camp, things like that," he said. "And the other thing is, the problem isn't contained to the woods. A rabid animal, the first thing it does is behave abnormally. A rabid animal will grab at anything. A sick raccoon will come sit on your back porch and wait for you."

The air drop program would be a logistically sound idea in Erie County because of its location between Niagara and Chautauqua counties, both counties where the drops are being used, Lubin said.

But, he cautioned, air drops of the fish-flavored, vaccine-laced bait pellets are not likely here until the state decides if it wants to pay to expand the fledgling program, which currently exists in limited areas statewide, including Grand Island, Clinton County, Essex County, and the St. Lawarence region.

"If we've got the problem eliminated, essentially, on both sides of us, it makes sense to make sure we don't become a reservoir for the problem," Lubin said. "But to try to put it into Erie County at this time on a locally-funded basis, the costs would be exorbitant."

County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick said funding for the air drops would be available in a future budget if Lubin makes a "strong recommendation" for the air drop.

Right now, Swanick said, rabies clinics -- which provide free inoculations for area household pets -- are helping keep the epidemic in control.

And on the state level, experts said it's too early to tell whether an expansion of the program -- and the money to help fund it -- will be forthcoming, even though all initial signs point to the experimental program's success.

"There are not many of these programs going on around the nation," said Dr. Millicent Eidson, the state's public health veterinarian. "It's difficult to say, either on its use in New York State or in other states, how effective it is. Certainly you can see a reduction in the number of rabid animals in the places where it is used. . . . The question is, how much it's costing you to achieve that."

That's exactly why, while waiting for state or private grant funding for the air drops, Lubin said he is keeping a close eye on the success -- and the cost-effectiveness -- of the program in neighboring counties.

There is no official estimate yet on how much an air-drop program would cost Erie County, but the biggest chunk of the program's cost is the bait itself, which runs about $1.50 per ice-cube-sized pellet, according to Dr. Eidson.

This year, the air drops will cost Niagara County $49,000 and Chautauqua County $140,000, health officials in the two counties said.

But officials there believe the program is well worth the money.

The vaccinations have dramatically cut the number of rabid animals in both counties, health officials said.

"It's working," said James J. Devald, environmental health director for Niagara County, where there have been 12 verified cases of rabies so far this year -- down from a high of 150 cases in 1995.

After the latest air drop, which took place two weeks ago, a full 75 percent of the raccoons in Niagara County will be inoculated against the disease, Devald said.

In Chautauqua County, where the vaccine is air-dropped in two-thirds of the county, there have been 10 rabies cases so far -- all in the area that has not been covered with the air-dropped bait, said County Environmental Health Director Steven M. Johnson.

"The point is, every year you do it, your population of vaccinated raccoons gets higher," Johnson said. County statistics show that last year about 60 percent of raccoons were vaccinated, a percentage he hopes to see increase when testing is done again in October.

"Right now, we think the (raccoon) population is pretty high, but we think the population is mostly vaccinated," Johnson said. "There's always the possibility of some unvaccinated raccoons crossing over (from Erie County), but they wouldn't get very far."

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