Tularemia: Another Threat from Ticks

When I first heard of “tularemia,” it sounded like something I’d plant in my perennial garden. You know, “Oh, that flowering plant over there? It’s tularemia. It’s hardy and loves the sun!”

Nope. Turns out tularemia is yet another nasty disease spread by ticks, and it’s in the news.

On  July 13, the New Mexico Department of Health confirmed that a 51-year-old man had contracted tularemia. He was hospitalized from the illness, caused by a bacteria, and has since gone home. The department also reported 33 cases of tularemia in pet dogs and cats in five counties in the state.

While tularemia doesn’t typically get the attention that illnesses like Lyme disease and West Nile virus get, it’s still trouble.

In a press release from the NMDH, Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Retta Ward, MPH, noted, “Tularemia can cause serious illness in both people and pets.” Ward also cautions that people can contract the disease from handling infected animals (such as rabbits or rodents) or if they are bitten by infected ticks or deer flies.

Tularemia has been reported in all states except Hawaii, but is most common in the south central United States, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of Massachusetts.

While they were only 203 cases nationwide in 2013 (the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control), it’s still worth talking about. As with many diseases, prevention is far easier than the cure.

People can contract the disease from tick and deer fly bites, skin contact with infected animals (including their own dogs and cats) and, in rare cases, through infected water or by inhaling the bacteria (for example, mowing over a dead animal contaminated with the bacteria.)

Depending on the form of the disease, symptoms can be flu-like, such as fever, chills, swollen lymph glands, sore throat and mouth ulcers, and even chest pain and difficulty breathing. Because the symptoms can be similar to other more common illnesses, the CDC warns that it can be difficult to diagnose, so if you are exposed to any of the vectors, be sure to tell your doctor.

You can limit your exposure. The NMHD suggests:

  • Wear gloves while gardening or landscaping, and wash your hands after these activities.
  • Avoid mowing over dead animals when cutting the grass, etc. as this can potentially aerosolize the bacteria.
  • Do not go barefoot while gardening, mowing or landscaping.
  • Dispose of animal carcasses by using a long-handled shovel and either bury them 2-3 feet deep (if allowed) or double bag them in garbage bags and dispose in the trash.
  • Wear an insect repellent effective against ticks, biting flies and mosquitoes when hiking, camping or working outdoors. Effective repellants include: DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or IR3535.
  • Do not drink unpurified water from streams or lakes or allow your pets to drink surface waters.
  • Prevent pets from hunting or eating wild animals. Contact a veterinarian if your pet becomes ill with a high fever and/or swollen lymph nodes.

You can also help protect yourself by protecting your pet. Flea and tick topicals like PetArmor Plus help keep ticks at bay, keeping your best four-footed friend safe from pests and the discomfort and diseases they carry, and help keep you and your family safe, too.

For more information on tularemia, see the CDC.

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