“We haven’t seen this many tularemia cases in Colorado since the 1980s,” said State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer House. “Historically, we see cases of tularemia in hunters, and the disease is so widespread this year, we want to make sure our hunters understand the risks.”
“In the last 10 years Colorado has averaged three human cases of tularemia a year,” Dr. House said. “So far in 2014 we have had 11, and additional suspected cases are under investigation.”
Local health departments have received numerous reports of rabbit and rodent die-offs across the state this year. Animals from 12 counties tested positive for tularemia, a bacterial disease that can affect small game animals. It commonly causes illness and death in rabbits and rodents such as squirrels. People can get tularemia if they handle infected animals or are bitten by ticks or deer flies.
People also can be exposed to tularemia by touching contaminated soil, drinking contaminated water or inhaling bacteria. Hunters are most at risk when skinning game and preparing and consuming the meat.
Harvest only small game that looks and acts healthy. Beware of lazy rabbits!
Avoid hunting in areas where dead small game has been found.
Wear gloves when handling small game animals, and wash your hands after removing your gloves.
Cook all game meat thoroughly to 160-170 F.
Notify your public health department or local wildlife office if you notice sick or dead rabbits or rodents.
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. Nine of the 11 people infected with tularemia this year were hospitalized for treatment.
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.