FORT COLLINS — A person in Larimer County has been infected with tularemia, the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment said in a news release.

The patient developed a lung infection, and may have been exposed while gardening at home, the health department said. It is the first human case of tularemia in a county in 2018.

Soil can be contaminated by tularemia-causing bacteria from the droppings or urine of sick animals, most often rabbits. When a person mows, blows leaves, or turns up the soil, these bacteria can aerosolize and be inhaled, causing pneumonic tularemia.

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A recent die-off of rabbits or rodents in a neighborhood suggests a possible tularemia outbreak among the animals in that area. The bacteria these animals shed can persist in the soil or water for weeks, and it takes very few bacteria to cause an infection.

All warm-blooded animals are susceptible to tularemia, including livestock and pets such as dogs, cats, and birds, however these bacteria normally occur in nature in rabbits and hares, as well as in small rodents, voles, muskrats, and beavers.

Tularemia can be transmitted to people, such as hunters, who have handled infected animals. Infection can also arise from the bite of infected insects. (most commonly ticks and deer flies) In recent years, most human tularemia cases along the Front Range have been attributed to activities involving soil and vegetation.

Typical signs of infection in humans may include fever, chills, headache, swollen and painful lymph glands, and fatigue. If tularemia is caused by the bite of an infected insect or from bacteria entering a cut or scratch, it usually causes a skin ulcer or pustule and swollen glands. Eating or drinking food or water containing the bacteria may produce a throat infection, mouth ulcers, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Inhaling the bacteria may cause an infection of the lungs with chest pain and coughing.

Tularemia can be effectively treated with antibiotics, however, if untreated tularemia can lead to hospitalization and may be fatal if not diagnosed and treated appropriately.

The health department offered the following tips to stay safe while gardening.

  • Wear gloves when gardening or planting trees, and always wash hands before eating or putting hands to mouth, nose, or eyes
  • Wear a dust mask when mowing or blowing vegetation, or excavating or tilling soil
  • Wear an insect repellent effective against ticks, biting flies and mosquitoes (DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 are good choices)
  • Wear shoes, rather than going barefoot, on grassy lawns, especially if dead rabbits or rodents have been seen in the neighborhood
  • Never touch dead animals with bare hands

For more information on tularemia and protecting people and pets, visit http://bit.ly/2KQ2X5S.