Tularemia (Rabbit Fever) Fact Sheet
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What Is Tularemia?
Tularemia is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. It affects both humans and animals, and is typically found in wild animals such as rabbits, muskrats, and beavers. It is also known as Rabbit Fever because hunters can get the disease from contact with infected rabbits. There is concern that Francisella tularensis could be used as a bioterrorist agent.
How Is Tularemia Spread?
Hunters and other people who spend a lot of time outdoors are at greater risk of being exposed to tularemia. Tularemia is contracted through the following routes:
- Skin: The most common route is through a cut in the skin while handling infected animals, or by being bitten by an infected tick or deerfly.
- Stomach: Eating an infected animal such as a rabbit, or less commonly through drinking contaminated water.
- Lungs: The bacteria can be inhaled after breathing in dust from contaminated soil. Airborne tularemia would be the most likely agent for a bioterrorist attack as it could be released through aerosol spray devices.
Tularemia is not known to be spread from person to person.
How Common Is Tularemia?
Tularemia is rare in Canada. There are approximately 200 cases reported annually in the U.S. The number of cases increases during May to August (associated with tick-borne transmission) and in December to January (associated with hunting). There are no known deaths attributed to tularemia since the 1930s.
What Are the Symptoms of Tularemia?
Symptoms of tularemia can include: sudden fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, progressive weakness and pneumonia. Persons with pneumonia can cough up blood and have trouble breathing. Other symptoms of tularemia depend on how a person was exposed to the tularemia bacteria. These symptoms can include ulcers on the skin or mouth, swollen and painful lymph glands, swollen and painful eyes, and a sore throat.
When Do Symptoms Occur?
Symptoms usually appear 3 to 10 days after exposure, but can take as long as 14 days.
How Is Tularemia Treated?
Certain antibiotics such as streptomycin have been shown to be effective. Other antibiotics that have been reported to be effective include gentamicin, doxycycline, and ciprofloxacin.
Can I Get Treatment If I Have Been Exposed but Do Not Have Symptoms?
Yes, you can get antibiotics if you may have been exposed to tularemia. The antibiotics most commonly used for prevention of illness are doxycycline and ciprofloxacin.
Is There a Vaccine for Tularemia?
Currently, there is no vaccine available for general public use.
How Can Tularemia Be Prevented?
- Wear rubber gloves when handling or skinning animals, especially rabbits.
- All wild meat should be cooked properly before eating.
- Avoid drinking, bathing, swimming or working in untreated water.
- Wear protective clothing and use insect repellent to avoid tick and fly bites. Check for ticks frequently.
- Tell your children not to handle sick or dead animals.
Call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 (TTY at 416-392-0658) or speak to your health care provider.