The number of human tularemia cases reported in Colorado is up 5-fold in 2014 compared to the usual numbers reported in the state on an annual basis, according to state public health officials this week.

Beaver/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Beaver/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

To date, Colorado has seen 15 human cases – five times the annual average for the state. Of this, 11 people required hospitalization for their illness.

There has been numerous animal cases reported in the state in 2014, in at least 27 Colorado counties, with the latest reports of beavers testing positive for the serious bacterial disease in Summit County.

“We’re encouraging Summit County residents and visitors to avoid handling sick or dead animals and to stay away from potentially contaminated areas, evidenced by the presence of dead animals,” Summit County Public Health Nurse Steph Stookey said. “Given the rise in cases this year, it’s important to take necessary precautions.”

According to a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from one year go, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that during the past decade (2001-2010), a total of 1,208 cases were reported.

From 2001-2010, cases of tularemia were reported from 47 states with six states accounting for nearly six out of 10 cases: Missouri (19%), Arkansas (13%), Oklahoma (9%), Massachusetts (7%), South Dakota (5%), and Kansas (5%).

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Tularemia is a disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Infected animals shed the bacteria in their feces and urine, and high numbers of bacteria are present in their carcasses. The bacteria can persist for long periods of time in water, soil and carcasses.

Humans are most commonly infected with tularemia by breathing in the bacteria during outdoor activities in areas where small-animal die-offs have occurred. They can also contract the disease through direct exposure to infected animals, by drinking contaminated water, through contact with contaminated soil and by ingestion. Ticks, deer flies and infected pets can also transmit tularemia to people. Person-to-person transmission does not occur.

People who work or play in areas where dead small mammals have been seen are at risk for inhaling airborne tularemia bacteria. Symptoms of the disease include, but are not limited to, high fever, open sores on the skin or mucous membranes, eye irritation and swelling, swollen lymph nodes, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and chest pain. Blood tests and cultures can help confirm a diagnosis. Most infections can be treated successfully with antibiotics.

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