The prevalence of rabid animals in Niagara County has dropped by 83 percent in the past five years, according to county Health Department reports.
But health officials are sending out a plea to surrounding counties to get on the bandwagon in order to stop rabid animals from crossing into Niagara County.
The Niagara County Health Department reported that 21 rabid animals were found in 1999, including 16 raccoons, three bats and two skunks.
Officials said, however, that a barn cat from Barre in Orleans county was recently confirmed rabid -- the first in the state in 2000, according to the state's Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany.
The county Legislature has agreed to seek help from Orleans and Genesee counties in the fight against rabies, after the granddaughter of one of the legislators was bitten by a rabid raccoon in a Lockport back yard. Kaitlin Kelly, granddaughter of John W. Cole III, R-Lockport, was bitten in June at a neighbor's home.
In order to keep cases of rabies down, Niagara County, in cooperation with Cornell University and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, has been conducting annual airdrops of bait laced with a rabies vaccine since 1995.
The number of confirmed rabid animals in the county fell from about 150 in 1995 to 21 in 1999, according to James J. Devald, County Environmental Health Director.
Cole said, however, that if the surrounding counties don't get on the same program, those animals with rabies in the outlying counties are going to make their way here anyway.
"Maybe they just don't think they've got a problem," said Cole. "What happens here is, of course, now we have a healthy population of raccoons and because of that now we have an increased number of raccoons."
The commissioner of the Erie County Health Department, Dr. Arnold N. Lubin, said Erie County does not have aerial bait drops like Niagara County does, except on Grand Island. He is waiting for results of studies by the state, the Canadian government and the Cornell Cooperative Extension to see if the drops are successful.
Erie County also has eight or more clinics a year to vaccinate cats and dogs, said Lubin. "We've got it as much under control as we can," he said.
Lubin also raised the question of whether the decreases in Niagara County have been due to the baits or because of a natural phenomenon.
"I guess we can come up with some decreases between 1995 and 2000, too, but in our case it wouldn't be due to airdrops. . . . It goes in peaks and valleys."
Erie County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, said Saturday that his group is waiting to hear from Lubin before taking any action on airdrops of the vaccination pellets.
"According to Dr. Lubin, there's some very mixed reviews about this method of rabies baiting," he said. "It wouldn't make sense for us to move forward if our commissioner of health didn't recommend we do it."
The health department is warning residents to have pets vaccinated against rabies, and not to harbor cats that are not vaccinated.