PUEBLO COUNTY, Colo. — Health officials are warning the public after a kid in Pueblo County contracted tularemia or rabbit fever.
The Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment said this is the first human case of tularemia in the county this year.
“Pueblo residents, especially those living in Pueblo West, are advised that tularemia causing bacteria may be present in some of the mammals, especially rabbits, rodents, and hares, and on the ground where these animals may be active,” Alicia Solis, program manager at the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment. Solis added, “Human tularemia cases are rare, but some activities may increase the risk of developing the disease. These activities may include inhaling or drinking contaminated soil or water, having direct skin contact with infected animals, or being bitten by a tick or deer fly.”
The disease can be spread through soil contaminated with the droppings or urine of sick animals. People can inhale it when they mow, blow leaves, or till soil.
“In the past, we’ve had cases where people have mowed over dead animals and they didn’t have on a protective mask and breathed it in and got tularemia,” said Vicki Carlton, program manager for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment.
It can also be spread through the bite of infected insects, usually ticks and deer flies. Hunters who skin animals without gloves and are exposed through an open wound are also at risk.
“Because tularemia is known to be in Pueblo County, precautions to prevent tularemia infection should always be taken, especially when mowing weeds or grass and when soil is disturbed,” emphasized Solis.
Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, chest pain, and coughing. Tularemia can be treated with antibiotics, so anyone with symptoms is encouraged to contact a doctor.
“It can go into the lungs and be like a pneumonia. You can get maybe an ulcer if you had a bite from a tick or a deer fly, you know, it can leave an ulcer wherever that bite was. So and I think it’s important that if you come down with those symptoms and you’ve been in an area where tularemia could be, that you let the doctor know,” Carlton said.
Dogs and cats can get tularemia by eating infected rabbits or other rodents, and through tick and deer fly bites. Symptoms in pets include fever, nasal and eye discharge, and skin sores. Tularemia is easily treated if diagnosed early, so pets with symptoms should be taken to a veterinarian promptly.
The health department offered the following tips for preventing tularemia:
- Avoid handling wild animals.
- When outdoors near places where wild rabbits or rodents are present, wear insect repellent containing DEET.
- Use a dust mask when mowing or doing yard work. Do not mow over animal carcasses.
- Wear shoes covering your feet when outdoors where dead animals have been found.
- Do not go barefoot or wear sandals while gardening, mowing or landscaping.
- Wear gloves while gardening or landscaping, and wash your hands after these activities.
- Do not drink unpurified water from streams or lakes or allow your pets to drink surface waters.
- Leash your pets when outdoors and keep them away from dead animals.
- Routinely use a tick and flea prevention treatment on pets.
- If a dead animal must be moved, avoid direct contact with the carcass. Wear insect repellent to protect yourself from fleas or ticks, and use a long-handled shovel to scoop up the carcass.
- Place the carcass in a garbage bag and dispose of in an outdoor trash receptacle. Wash your hands with soap and water afterward.
If you hunt, trap, or skin animals, take added steps:
- Use gloves that do not allow fluids to pass through when skinning or handling animals, especially rabbits.
- Cook the meat of wild rabbits thoroughly to a temperature of 165°F or higher.