A Louisville resident has tested positive for tularemia after exposure to a dead rabbit while walking with her dog near Coyote Run Open Space in Louisville. The resident had a small cut on her knee, where the tularemia bacteria are thought to have entered her body.

Wild Rabbit Image/Dtw2tv
Wild Rabbit

The resident was seen by multiple doctors after experiencing swollen lymph nodes, abdominal pain, and pain in the front of her knee. She developed a high fever, headache, and general malaise and was admitted to the hospital. Her condition has greatly improved, and she is recovering at home.

This is the second Boulder County resident to test positive for the tularemia this year; nine people have tested positive for the disease in Colorado. In most of the cases, people were exposed to the disease while participating in outdoor activities, such as mowing or recreating in areas where sick or dead wildlife were present.

Boulder County Public Health officials will be posting warning signs in the area to alert residents of the risks of tularemia.

“Illness from tularemia can be very painful and often requires care in the hospital, “said Jamie Feld, Boulder County Public Health Communicable Disease Control epidemiologist. “The best protection is prevention.”

People become infected with tularemia through skin contact with infected animal tissue or through the bite of infected insects, most commonly ticks and deer flies. The bacteria can also be inhaled when infected animal tissue is broken up into small particles and spread in the air, such as when an infected carcass is mowed over.

“This is a reminder of how important it is to avoid touching wildlife,” said Marshall Lipps, Boulder County Public Health environmental health specialist. “Because of the wet weather, we’re seeing a lot more animal and rodent activity. With more animals and rodents in our environment, it’s more likely that some of them will carry disease.”

Symptoms of tularemia include an abrupt onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, difficulty breathing, bloody sputum, and respiratory failure. Symptoms also include skin ulcers, swollen and painful lymph glands, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores, diarrhea, or pneumonia. Tularemia is treatable when detected early.

Tularemia is often overlooked as a diagnosis because it is rare, and the symptoms are similar to other diseases. Public health officials recommend that anyone who becomes ill after possible exposure to a sick or dead animal should ask their health care providers about the possibility of tularemia.

Public health officials recommend the following precautions:

  • Avoid all contact with wild animals or rodents, including squirrels and rabbits; do not feed or handle them. If an animal must be moved, place it in a garbage bag using a long-handled shovel, and place the bag in an outdoor garbage can.
  • Do not wear sandals or walk barefoot in an area where animals have been seen sick or dead. The tularemia bacteria can persist in the environment, such as soil and water, for several months after it is detected.
  • Stay out of areas inhabited by wild animals or rodents. If you must enter areas frequented by wild rodents, always wear insect repellent that is effective against ticks, biting flies, and mosquitoes and contains DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
  • Do not mow over animal carcasses, and consider using a dust mask when doing landscape work.
  • Prevent pets from hunting or eating wild rodents or rabbits. Infected pets, such as cats, may in turn transmit the disease to people. Contact a veterinarian if a pet becomes ill with a high fever and/or swollen lymph nodes.

Nineteen animals (16 rabbits, 1 vole, 1 mouse, 1 cat) have tested positive for the disease in Colorado this year; 4 animals tested positive in 2013.

In the United States, human cases of tularemia have been reported from every state except Hawaii, with the majority occurring in south-central and western states.