What is Tularemia?

Tularemia is an infectious ailment that affects animals such as:

  • Birds
  • Squirrels
  • Rabbits
  • Wild rodents

Tularemia is caused by Francisella tularensis, a type of bacteria. It may be fatal.

This article discusses tularemia in detail, including its transmission to humans, the forms and symptoms of the disease, how it can be treated, and more.

Tularemia
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How is tularemia transmitted to humans?

A person can contract tularemia when he or she has direct contact with an animal already infected by the disease. The infection can also be transmitted through bites from deer flies, mosquito, or ticks.

There are various forms of tularemia, all distinguished by the point where the bacteria enter the body.

The most common form of tularemia occurs through skin contact with the bacteria. And the most severe form occurs by inhaling the causative bacteria.

Your doctor can treat tularemia with antibiotics. When treated early, there’s a good chance of complete recovery. But then, some cases may be very serious even with early treatment.

Tularemia is a rare condition. At least 100 – 200 cases are reported yearly in the United States.

What are the forms of tularemia and how can they be identified?

The symptoms of this disease vary greatly. They may be asymptomatic or mild, and in some cases, life-threatening. Symptoms manifest within 3 – 5 days of being infected with the pathogen. Sometimes, it may take up to 14 days to manifest.

The symptoms also vary depending on the point of entry of the bacteria into the body. The following are the various forms of tularemia and their symptoms:

Glandular tularemia

The symptoms include:

Ulceroglandular tularemia

It shares similar symptoms with glandular tularemia. It is infection through the skin, and so in addition to other symptoms, there is also a skin ulcer at the point where the infected animal makes contact with the skin.

Pneumonic tularemia

It is the most serious form of tularemia. A person gets it through inhalation. Symptoms of pneumonic tularemia include:

  • Chest pain
  • A high fever
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Dry cough

Oculoglandular tularemia

The symptoms of this form of the disease include:

  • Eye pain
  • Irritation of the eye
  • Redness or discharge of the eye
  • Eye swelling
  • A sore in the eyelid
  • Swollen lymph glands behind the ear

Oropharyngeal tularemia

The infection is gotten through the ingestion of the bacteria. Symptoms of oropharyngeal tularemia include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen tonsils, or tonsillitis
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

Typhoidal tularemia

This is the rarest form of the disease. The symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme fatigue
  • High fever

Typhoidal tularemia can cause pneumonia, enlarged spleen, or an enlarged liver.

Potential complications

If left untreated, this condition may cause the following complications:

Causes

The disease is caused by Francisella tularensis, a bacterium. Potential carriers of this bacterium include:

  • Rabbits
  • Rodents
  • Hares
  • Deer ticks
  • Deer flies
  • Pets that wander outdoors
  • Rabbit ticks

The type of tularemia that a person develops depends on how the bacteria get into the body.

Skin exposure is the commonest form of the disease. The most serious form of the disease is inhalation through the lungs.

If it is not treated, other forms of the body may progress to other areas of the body including:

  • Heart
  • Brain
  • Lungs
  • Spinal cord

We have established that this disease has several complications, and in some cases, death.

Risk factors

The causative bacteria are carried by animals. You have a high risk of getting the disease if you frequently establish contact with animals.

People with a high risk for tularemia include:

  • Zookeepers, park rangers, and veterinarians (people working closely with animals)
  • People who live in forest regions
  • Garden and landscape workers
  • Taxidermists, butchers, and hunters (people who work closely with animal carcasses).

How is tularemia diagnosed?

Diagnosing this condition is not easy because its appearance is similar to other diseases. The fact that the bacteria can get into the body through multiple routes complicates the issue.

You will have to give your doctor your complete medical and personal history before he can make an accurate diagnosis.

Your doctor may consider the possibility of an infection if you have had recent insect bites, travels, or animal contact. The presence of an underlying medical condition that weakens your immune system (HIV or cancer for example) may also lead your doctor to suspect the disease.

Tularemia may be detected through a serology test. A serology test uncovers specific antibodies created by your body to fight the infection.

Because early testing does not reveal the antibodies in all cases, your doctor may decide to culture a sample in the lab. Samples are gotten from:

  • Lymph nodes
  • Skin
  • Spinal fluid
  • Pleural fluid

Treatment

Treatment of this condition is based on the form and severity. With early diagnosis, it can be treated effectively with antibiotics.

Antibiotics that can help with treatment include:

  • Streptomycin
  • Gentamicin
  • Doxycycline
  • Ciprofloxacin

Swollen lymph nodes may have to be drained via surgery. Infected tissue may have to be removed through surgical intervention. Headache and fever may be treated with medications.

How to prevent tularemia

To prevent the disease, you have to take basic safety precautions. The causative bacteria live in dirty environments. Outbreaks have occurred in hunting parties where safe cleaning methods wasn’t practiced.

To clean animals, take the following precautions:

  • Wear gloves and goggles when handling animals
  • Do not dress or skin sick animals or animals that appear to be sick
  • Cook the meat well
  • Wash your hands with care after handling any animals

General tips that will help decrease your risk of contracting the disease include:

  • Not keeping animal remains close to water or food
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants when in the forest. This will prevent tick bites.
  • Using insect repellants
  • Not drinking water from ponds or lakes
  • Protecting your pets with tick and flea repellants

Tularemia can be aerosolized. This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention marks it as a potential bioterrorism agent. However, an infection from animal contact is more likely. Consult your doctor immediately if you think that you have this condition.