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What is Tularemia?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2016
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Tularemia is a disease caused by the Francisella tularensis bacterium. You may also hear this illness referred to as “rabbit fever,” in a reference to one of its primary carriers in the wild. Infection with tularemia can be fatal if it is ignored, but the condition is usually very easy to treat with antibiotics. It is also quite rare; around 200 cases a year are recorded in North America, for example, typically among people who are at higher risk of contracting the disease to begin with.

Tularemia is named for Tulare County in California, where an outbreak of the disease among wild rabbits in 1911 first brought it to human attention. It is characterized by a fever, swelling lymph nodes, and a rash, with skin ulcers being quite common, especially around the site of the bite which infected the patient, if he or she was infected by a bite. In some forms, tularemia can also infect the eyes, lungs, and digestive tract, causing general discomfort with its associated ulcers.

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The bacterium which is responsible for tularemia is highly infectious, and tularemia is among one of the most infectious diseases on Earth. However, it is not readily passed between humans. Most people get it from insect bites, with insects like ticks and deerflies feeding on the blood of infected animals such as rabbits and rodents. It is also possible to get tularemia from eating the meat of an infected animal, through contaminated water or soil, or in airborne form. Gardeners are particularly susceptible to airborne tularemia because they frequently disturb the soil while working.

The diagnosis of tularemia is accomplished either by culturing a blood sample to see if the bacterium grows, or by testing blood to see if antibodies to tularemia are present. Doctors may also order x-rays, to assure themselves that the infection has not spread to the lung. Once a diagnosis is made, the patient will be given antibiotics to treat it, and as always when using antibiotics, it is important to finish the course to ensure that the infection is completely knocked out of your system.

Because tularemia is so infectious, several nations allegedly developed it as part of their biological weapons programs, working on strains which would be resistant to antibiotics. When used as a biological weapon, it is assumed that tularemia would be aerosolized, thus spreading to as many people as possible in a short period of time. Many stocks of weaponized tularemia have been destroyed and this destruction has been documented, but the potential uses for F. tularensis are a source of concern to some governments.

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