According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there have been 11 human cases of tularemia in Colorado since May of this year. Sixteen human tularemia cases were reported in 2014, the second highest number of cases in Colorado since 1983 when there were 20 cases. The previous average was fewer than four cases a year.
People can get tularemia if they handle infected animals, such as rabbits, rodents or hares, or are bitten by ticks or deer flies. They also can be exposed by touching contaminated soil, drinking contaminated water or inhaling bacteria.
Anyone who becomes ill after exposure to a sick or dead animal, or after spending time in areas where sick or dead wild animals have been seen, should talk to a health care provider about the possibility of tularemia. Tularemia is treatable with antibiotics.
Symptoms of tularemia include abrupt onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, joint pain, vomiting, dry cough and difficulty breathing. Other symptoms are skin ulcers, swollen and painful lymph glands, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores, diarrhea or pneumonia. Tularemia often is overlooked as a diagnosis because it is rare, and the symptoms are similar to other diseases. The incubation period (from being exposed to becoming ill) for tularemia is typically 3 to 5 days, but can range from 1 to 14 days.
Individuals who became sick this year reported engaging in activities such as gardening, mowing, soil excavation, construction, ranching and farming. Few reported seeing any sick or dead animals in the days prior to their illness onset. Many of the 2015 patients were ill for several weeks before receiving antibiotic treatment.
To avoid exposure to tularemia, state Public Health Veterinarian Jennifer House recommends people:
- Wear gloves while gardening or landscaping, and wash your hands after these activities.
- Use a dust mask when mowing or doing yard work. Do not mow over animal carcasses.
- Do not go barefoot or wear sandals while gardening, mowing or landscaping.
- Dispose of animal carcasses by using a long-handled shovel to place them in a garbage bag. Put the bag in an outdoor garbage can.
- Wear an insect repellent effective against ticks, biting flies and mosquitoes when hiking, camping or working outdoors. Effective repellants contain 20 to 30 percent DEET, picaridin or IR3535.
- Do not drink unpurified water from streams or lakes or allow your pets to drink surface waters.
- Prevent pets from hunting or eating wild animals. Contact a veterinarian if your pet becomes ill with a high fever and/or swollen lymph nodes.