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After Positive Fort Collins Test, What To Know About Tularemia

Jimmy Thomas
Flickr-Creative Commons
Wild rabbits are known carriers of tularemia, which was recently found in a dead one in Fort Collins.

A wild rabbit in Fort Collins recently tested positive for a disease called tularemia, a very infectious disease that can sicken humans as well as animals, the Larimer County Health Department reported.

So how worried should you be?

According to Adrienne LeBailly, director of the Larimer County Department of Public Health and Environment, while some types of tularemia can make humans very sick, cases of humans getting it are very rare.

"I think there's about one case per million in the United States on average. There's about three in Colorado per year," she said.

The bacteria that cause tularemia are always around in wild animals in Colorado – in fact in every state but Hawaii. Sometimes outbreaks can cause die-offs in animal populations, like what appears to be happening to rabbits in southeast Fort Collins, where the infected rabbit was found. Rabbits are common carriers and often a vector for the disease to get transmitted to humans.

"Historically the most common people to get it are hunters who skin animals, particularly rabbits," said LeBailly. The disease can get transmitted from the animal into a cut on the hunter's skin, or through eating undercooked meat. Ticks and deer flies are the other most common way the disease is transmitted, when they bite a human after feeding on an infected animal.

Credit Centers for Disease Control
Centers for Disease Control
Tularemia was much more common in the early part of the 20th century than it is now.

Most Severe Form Is Airborne

Tularemia can also be spread through the air. When someone catches the disease by breathing in the bacteria, the disease is called pneumonic tularemia. This airborne type of the illness is the most severe.

In the early 2000s an outbreak of pneumonic tularemia hit the vacation town of Martha's Vineyard. Researchers linked it with landscaping activities like brush cutting or lawn mowing.

Paul Mead, a medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control, said people out mowing lawns should avoid running over dead animals, which could be infected with the disease.

"That's when people get particularly ill is if they mow over a dead animal. They generate these aerosols, breathe it in, get pneumonic tularemia," he said.

If homeowners do encounter dead animals, they should dispose of them in a plastic bag, with a shovel, while wearing gloves.

Good News: It's Rarely Deadly, Highly Treatable

The symptoms of tularemia include a high fever of about 103 or 104 degrees with a quick onset, aches and pains, and sometimes swelling of lymph nodes in the area where the disease was transmitted by a bite or a cut. An ulcer can also develop in that area. People with pneumonic tularemia experience chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing.

While tularemia may sound scary (after all, it has been discussed by the CDC for its potential use as a biological weapon), as a bacterial infection it is treatable by antibiotics and is rarely deadly, said the CDC's Mead.

He recommended using insect repellant, which also protects against mosquito-born illnesses like West Nile. Larimer County's LeBailly also said dog owners should take care to make sure their pets do not interact with potentially infected animals, especially if they live in an area where they know rabbits are infected.

Reporter Jackie Fortier contributed to this story.

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