After battling a tularemia infection for the past 5 1/2 weeks, Michael Schwope, 74, of Cowley Wyoming died from the serious bacterial disease last week as Wyoming health officials advise the public on an unusually active season this year.
The Big Horn County man was one of 11 cases of “rabbit fever” diagnosed in Wyoming this year. “To see this many cases reported in Wyoming in a single year is striking,” said Dr. Tracy Murphy, state epidemiologist with WDH. “While tularemia should always be of potential concern, we typically are notified of just one or two cases annually. Over the last 25 years the highest number of cases reported in Wyoming was six in 2001 and the last time we had a reported tularemia-linked death was in 2010.”
There have been five tularemia cases reported this year among Weston County residents, two from Crook County and one each from Goshen, Natrona, Converse and Big Horn counties. Murphy noted some of Wyoming’s neighbor states are also seeing high tularemia activity.
New Mexico has reported six human cases so far this year, while Colorado has reported at least 21.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, tularemia can be a serious, even deadly, disease,” Murphy said.
Tularemia symptoms can include fever, swollen and painful lymph glands, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores, skin ulcers and diarrhea. If the bacteria are inhaled, symptoms can include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough and progressive weakness and pneumonia.
Tularemia, also known as “rabbit fever” or “deer fly fever,” frequently affects rabbits, hares and rodents. People may acquire tularemia when bit by infected ticks, deer flies or horse flies. It can also be transmitted by handling infected animals; through ingestion or contact with untreated, contaminated water or insufficiently cooked meat; or by inhaling bacteria that may be present in contaminated dust or animal material.
Murphy said while tularemia cases are more commonly reported during warmer months when people are more likely to be involved in outdoor activities, some of the disease’s risk factors continue year round.
Specific precautions to help reduce tularemia risk include:
· Avoid bathing, swimming or working in untreated water and avoid drinking untreated water.
· Avoid handling rabbits, squirrels or other animals that appear sick.
· Wear rubber gloves when skinning animals, especially rabbits and squirrels; skin animals in a well-ventilated area.
· Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling sick or dead animals.
· Cook meat thoroughly before eating, especially rabbit and squirrel.
Recommendations to help avoid tularemia and other tick-related diseases include:
· Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to see ticks crawling on clothing.
· Tuck pant legs into socks.
· Apply insect repellents such as those containing 20 percent or more DEET and/or picaradin.
· Upon return from potentially tick-infested areas, search self and children for ticks and remove if found.
· Check pets for ticks; use tick control products recommended by veterinarians.