What you should know about tularemia

By Kristy Bleizeffer Aug 27, 2015

This week, the Wyoming Department of Health reported that tularemia had killed a Big Horn County man and sickened at least 10 others across the state: five in Weston County, two in Crook County and one each in Natrona, Goshen, Converse and Big Horn counties.

"To see this many cases reported in Wyoming in a single year is striking," said Dr. Tracy Murphy, state epidemiologist in the release. The department typically learns of one or two cases a year and hasn't seen a tularemia-linked death since 2010. Though tularemia responds well to treatment, it can be deadly if left unchecked.

Earlier this summer, we sat down with Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County Health Officer, to talk about summer infections as part of our Summer Safety Series. Here's what you should know about tularemia.

  • What it is: Disease caused by bacterium Francisella tularensis; Can infect humans but rabbits, hares and rodents are especially susceptible
  • Spread by: Typically spread through the bites from infected ticks, horse and deer fly bites. It can also be transmitted by handling infected animals, ingesting contaminated water, or inhaling dust that contains the bacteria.
    Shoo fly! Deer flies like this one can spread tularemia. (Photo credit: 'Chrysops callidus' by Bruce Marlin)

    Deer fly (Photo credit: ‘Chrysops callidus’ by Bruce Marlin)

  • Symptoms: High fever with an ulcer forming at site of bite that will not heal. Somewhere near the ulcer, you may have swollen lymph glands. You may also be infected by eating or drinking contaminated food or water, handling sick or dead animals, or breathing dust with the bacteria.
  • Treatment: Though life-threatening if not treated, it responds quickly to antibiotics. Because symptoms can mimic other illnesses and it is relatively rare, be sure to tell your health provider if you have any possible Tularemia exposure.
  • Prevalence: Dowell has seen maybe 12 cases in Wyoming in his 23 years here. There was a cluster of cases in Sweetwater County a few years a ago. “It’s definitely a risk. It’s a small risk, but it is out there.” This year is an exception.
  • Prevention: Protect yourself from insect bites (learn how). Avoid any contact with untreated water. Don't handle rabbits, squirrels or other sickly-looking animals; wash hands thoroughly with soap and water if you do.
  • Rabbit fever: “It was originally known as rabbit fever because it was spread by ticks on rabbits,” Dr. Dowell said. “There were big outbreaks on Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts where aristocrats introduced a ton of rabbits onto an island that previously had no rabbits. The rabbits bred like crazy, ticks spread the tularemia and humans started getting sick from it. Guys would mow their lawns and end up inhaling it and get sick.”
  • Don't panic: Dr. Dowell encourages people not worry too much about contracting tularemia. “Common sense keeps most people healthy. Just live your life, and don’t be stupid about it,” he said.

Mark Dowell M.D.

Dr. Mark Dowell is an infectious disease specialist with Wyoming Medical Center and Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases (RMID), 1450 E. A St. He is the Natrona County health officer and is board certified in infectious disease and internal medicine.  RMID offers a full-breadth of outpatient infectious disease care and is looking to expand its outreach clinics. It has three full-time physicians, a half-time physician and a full-time nurse practitioner. For more information, appointments or referrals, call RMID at (307) 234-8700. 

Email Article

Send "What you should know about tularemia" to a friend