The Larimer County Department of Health and Environment has confirmed the first human case of tularemia in a county resident in 2015. This resident may have been infected while planting trees or gardening. Soil can be contaminated by bacteria from the droppings or urine of sick animals, most likely rabbits. These bacteria can enter the skin through tiny cuts or abrasions.

Colorado counties map/David Benbennick
Colorado counties map/David Benbennick

Residents are advised that tularemia-causing bacteria may infect small animals – especially rabbits and hares – along the Front Range. A recent die-off of rabbits in a neighborhood suggests a possible tularemia outbreak among the animals in that area. These bacteria can persist in the soil or water for weeks, and it takes very few bacteria to cause an infection.

Tularemia can be transmitted to people who have handled infected animals, such as hunters. Infection can also arise from the bite of infected insects (most commonly ticks and deer flies); by exposure to contaminated food, water, or soil by eating, drinking, or direct contact with breaks in the skin; or by inhaling particles carrying the bacteria (through mowing or blowing vegetation).

Related: Colorado: Human tularemia cases up 5-times annual average in 2014

Typical signs of infection in humans may include fever, chills, headache, swollen and painful lymph glands, and fatigue. If tularemia is caused by the bite of an infected insect or from bacteria entering a cut or scratch, it usually causes a skin ulcer or pustule and swollen glands. Eating or drinking food or water containing the bacteria may produce a throat infection, mouth ulcers, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Inhaling the bacteria may cause an infection of the lungs with chest pain and coughing.

Tularemia can be effectively treated with antibiotics, therefore should you have any of these early signs, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Untreated tularemia can lead to hospitalization and may even be fatal.

LISTEN: Hantavirus and tularemia: Discussions with two prominent Public Health Veterinarians