A Larimer County resident became sick with tularemia in late July and was hospitalized for the illness in early August, according to local health officials.
The man may have been exposed while mowing a property in Weld County outside Windsor where rabbits had been plentiful this summer but had recently declined. An environmental investigation of the property by Weld County’s health department found no rabbit carcasses or conclusive evidence of tularemia; however, the mowed property is the most likely site of exposure.
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The patient developed symptoms of fever, sore throat, and swollen glands several days after mowing the field. He was treated for more common causes of such symptoms, but after two courses of treatment with different antibiotics and no improvement, he was hospitalized in Fort Collins where a tularemia infection was confirmed. He was released after several days of treatment with appropriate antibiotics and is expected to make a full recovery.
Earlier in July, a wild rabbit die-off in Fort Collins was found to be caused by tularemia, and in August a similar die-off was confirmed in Jefferson County. On July 16, Broomfield reported the first human case of tularemia this year in Colorado in a subdivision where numerous rabbits had been found dead. Health officials from both the Larimer County and the Weld County health departments are reminding residents to take precautions against this bacterial infection by avoiding sick or dead animals and preventing pets from coming in contact with wild animals.
Tularemia is a bacterial infection most frequently transmitted to people who have handled infected animals, especially rabbits, hares, beavers and muskrats, although many kinds of animals can become infected. The bacteria are also shed in their urine and feces, and can persist in the environment for a month or more. Infection can also be transmitted by the bite of infected insects, most commonly ticks and deer flies. Tularemia is not considered contagious from person-to-person.
Typical signs of infection in humans can vary tremendously based on the site of infection, but generally include fever, chills, and swollen glands. 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 at the site of entry and swelling of nearby glands. Eating food or drinking water containing the bacteria may produce a throat infection, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. If inhaled through aerosols created by mowing, the bacteria can enter the lungs and cause coughing, chest pain, and pneumonia. Tularemia may be life-threatening but can be effectively treated with antibiotics, and medical attention should be immediately sought if someone suspects exposure.
Steps to prevent human tularemia infection
• Stay out of areas where wild rabbits or rodents are present. Never try to feed wildlife.
• Avoid handling any sick or dead animals (including mammals and birds).
• Wear an insect repellent effective against ticks, biting flies and mosquitoes if you are in areas where sick animals have been found. Repellents containing DEET are a good choice for humans.
• Wear shoes and do not go barefoot in an area where rabbits have died. The bacteria can persist in the environment for several months, so these precautions should be followed for a similar time period.
• Consider wearing a dust mask when mowing or blowing vegetation in areas where rabbit die-offs have occurred.
• Take steps to prevent your pets from becoming infected. They can carry the ticks or the bacteria and pass it on to you.
What to do if you see a dead animal
If you suspect an animal might be sick, infectious, or has died of unknown causes, DO NOT TOUCH IT.
If you find or observe more than one animal in the same area that has died or is sick, call your local health department.
If you need to remove a dead animal
• Apply an insect repellent against fleas and ticks prior to proceeding with the removal.
• Use a shovel and place the body in a plastic bag.
• If the animal is not needed for testing, dispose of it in an outdoor trash receptacle.
• Wash your hands immediately.
For more information
Larimer County Department of Health and Environment: 970-498-6775 (on weekends or holidays, call Larimer County Animal Control, 970-226-3647.