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Tularemia: Overview, Prevention, Causes and Symptoms

Overview 

Tularemia, caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis, infects both people and animals. Rodents, hares, and rabbits die in large numbers in an outbreak situation. People can become infected through skin contact with the infected animals, deer fly bites, and ticks. People can also get tularemia by taking care of infected animals, drinking contaminated water, and eating contaminated food. 

What is Tularemia?

People can become sick with tularemia, but it is a rare condition. This infectious disease is primarily seen in animals; therefore, it is also known as Rabbit Fever. In humans, it infects the lymph nodes, eyes, lungs, and skin. One variety of tularemia affects the digestive system, mouth, and throat.

The bacterium Francisella tularensis is responsible for spreading this disease. Direct exposure to an infected animal and insect bites are the most common ways through which this disease spreads. It also occurs by eating undercooked meat of the infected animals.

Signs and Symptoms of Tularemia

If you are infected by tularemia, you may experience severe symptoms within 2 to 5 days, depending on the type of tularemia.

  • Ulceroglandular tularemia: Exhaustion, chills, fever, headache, skin ulcers, and swollen lymph glands 
  • Oculoglandular tularemia: Redness in the eyes, light sensitivity, ulcers that develop inside the eyelids, discharge from the eyes, swollen eyes, pain in the eyes, and tender lymph glands around the jaw, ears, and neck
  • Glandular tularemia: The symptoms are the same as ulceroglandular tularemia; however, people suffering from this type do not experience skin ulcers
  • Oropharyngeal tularemia: Mouth ulcers, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, swollen tonsils, throat pain, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and fever 
  • Pneumonic tularemia: Dry cough, difficulty in breathing, and chest pain
  • Typhoidal tularemia: Enlarged liver, enlarged spleen, high  fever, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, chills, sore throat, and muscle pain

When Should You See a Doctor?

If you have any of the aforementioned symptoms, contact your doctor right away. If you have been working close to or handling animals infected by tularemia, you will likely develop this disease. If ticks or rodents bite you in an area where there is a prevalence of tularemia, you should see a doctor even if you don’t have any symptoms. If you have a sudden fever or chills after being in an area where tularemia is prevalent, contact a doctor.

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Risk Factors Associated with Tularemia

Living in an area or visiting areas where there is a high prevalence of tularemia increases your chance of developing this disease. In India, Tularemia was first found in the year 2015 in the blood of a febrile patient. Although it is a rare disease in India, it can be found in some places, increasing its inhabitants’ risk.

People pursuing high-risk occupations and hobbies are at a greater risk of having this disease. For example, hunting or trapping animals exposes individuals to the blood of wild animals. Similarly, eating undercooked flesh of wild animals already infected with tularemia poses risks. People can inhale the bacterium while landscaping or gardening. Finally, individuals who have a veterinary practice or work in wildlife management may develop this disease.

Possible Complications of Tularemia 

The complications of this disease are as follows.

  • If untreated for a long time, the complications can be life-threatening. Tularemia can cause bone infection because it sometimes spreads to the bones. 
  • It can irritate the heart as the virus causes swelling in the thin membrane surrounding it. 
  • It can cause infection in the membrane of the spinal cord and brain. 
  • It can cause lung issues, wherein a person cannot release enough carbon dioxide and inhale sufficient oxygen, resulting in fatal respiratory failure.

Preventive Measures for Tularemia

Since there are no vaccines for tularemia, you must take a few preventive measures if you work or live in an area where this disease is prevalent.

  1. Don’t use bare hands to treat wild animals. If you hunt animals, wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after touching the animal.
  2. Avoid getting close to dead or sick animals.
  3. Always wear clothes that cover your exposed skin, especially those that are tight around your ankles and wrists.
  4. Use insect repellents when working outside and avoid tick bites in areas where tularemia is prevalent. Remove ticks immediately from your body and your pets’ fur, if found.
  5. Drink clean water. Don’t drink water from an exposed or uncovered container.
  6. If you are a gardener or landscaper, use face masks and gloves while using a lawnmower or brushing and cleaning weeds.
  7. Don’t dress or skin an animal that appears sick to you, and always eat properly cooked meat. A minimum temperature of 71.1 °C for ground meat and 73.8 °C for poultry is necessary for killing the virus.

Treatment Options for Tularemia

Diagnosing tularemia is difficult because the symptoms match a variety of other diseases. If diagnosed, antibiotics are usually prescribed for treatment. Antibiotics are either taken orally or injected, depending on the patient’s condition. If you have meningitis or pneumonia, you will first need to be treated for those diseases before tularemia is treated. People generally develop immunity to it after getting it once. However, in some people, tularemia can appear more than once.

Conclusion

Tularemia is a rare disease. If it goes untreated for long, it can cause fatalities. Some varieties, such as oropharyngeal tularemia, typhoidal tularemia, and pneumonic tularemia, are potentially more dangerous than other common forms. The best way to prevent this disease is to wear protective clothing and avoid sick or dead animals. Still, if you happen to have any of the aforementioned symptoms, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor right away.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the most common variety of tularemia?

The most common variety of tularemia is ulceroglandular tularemia. 

How long does tularemia last?

The symptoms last for about three weeks, but with proper treatment, patients completely recover from this disease. Treatment usually lasts for 10 to 21 days, depending on the severity of the condition.

Which animals are the most prone to tularemia?

Tularemia is found in less than 100 animals. Squirrels, rabbits, beavers, and muskrats are the most prone to this bacterium.

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