Tularemia is an illness caused by a bacteria. It results in fever, rash, and greatly enlarged lymph nodes.
Tularemia infects a variety of wild animals, including rabbits, deer, squirrels, muskrat, and beaver. Humans can acquire the bacteria directly from contact with the blood or body fluids of these animals, from the bite of a tick or fly which has previously fed on the blood of an infected animal, or from contaminated food or water.
Tularemia occurs most often in the summer months. It is most likely to infect people who come into contact with infected animals, including hunter, furriers, butchers, laboratory workers, game wardens, and veterinarians. In the United States, the vast majority of cases of tularemia occur in the southeastern and Rocky Mountain states.
Causes & symptoms
Five types of illness may occur, depending on where/how the bacteria enter the body:
- Ulceroglandular/Glandular tularemia. 75-85% of all cases are of this type. This type is contracted through the bite of an infected tick that has defecated bacteria-laden feces in the area of the bite wound. A tender red bump appears in the area of the original wound. Over a few weeks, the bump develops a punched-out center (ulcer). Nearby lymph nodes grow hugely swollen and very tender. The lymph nodes may drain a thick, pus-like material. Other symptoms include fever, chills, and weakness. In adults, the lymph nodes in the groin are most commonly affected; in children, the lymph nodes in the neck.
- Oculoglandular tularemia. This type accounts for only about 1% of all cases of tularemia. It occurs when a person's contaminated hand rubs his or her eye. The lining of the eyelids and the surface of the white of the eye (conjunctiva) becomes red and severely painful, with multiple small yellow bumps and pitted sores (ulcers). Lymph nodes around the ears, under the jaw, or in the neck may swell and become painful.
- Oropharyngeal and Gastrointestinal tularemia. This type occurs when contaminated meat is undercooked and then eaten, or when water from a contaminated source is drunk. Poor hygiene after skinning and cleaning an animal obtained through hunting can also lead to the bacteria entering through the mouth. Sores in the mouth and throat, as well as abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, ulcers in the intestine, intestinal bleeding, and diarrhea may all occur.
- Pulmonary tularemia. This rare type of tularemia occurs when a person inhales a spray of infected fluid, or when the bacteria reach the lungs through the blood circulation. A severe pneumonia follows.
- Typhoidal tularemia. This type of tularemia is particularly hard to diagnose, because it occurs without the usual skin manifestations or swelling of lymph glands. Symptoms include continuously high fever, terrible headache, and confusion. The illness may result in a severely low blood pressure, with signs of poor blood flow to the major organs (shock).
Samples from the skin lesions can be prepared with special stains, to allow identification of the causative bacteria under the microscope. Other tests are available to demonstrate the presence of antibodies (special immune cells which the body produces in response to the presence of specific foreign invaders) which would be increasing over time in an infection with tularemia.
Streptomycin (given as a shot in a muscle) and gentamicin (given as either a shot in a muscle or through a needle in the vein) are both used to treat tularemia. Other types of antibiotics have been tested, but have often resulted in relatively high rates of relapse (20%).
With treatment, death rates from tularemia are under 1%. Without treatment, however, the death rate may reach 30%. The pneumonia and typhoidal types have the worst prognosis without treatment.
Prevention involves avoiding areas known to harbor ticks and flies, or the appropriate use of insect repellents. Hunters should wear gloves when skinning animals or preparing meat. Others (butchers, game wardens, veterinarians) who work with animals or carcasses should always wear gloves. A vaccine exists, but is usually only given to people at very high risk due to their profession or hobby (veterinarians, laboratory workers, butchers, hunters, game wardens).
- The lining of the eyelids and the surface of the white part of the eye.
- A state in which drastically low blood pressure prevents adequate blood flow to the tissues and organs throughout the body.
For Your Information
- Jacobs, Richard F. "Tularemia." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, edited by Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
- Ryan, Kenneth J. "Some Bacteria Causing Zoonotic Diseases." In Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases, edited by Kenneth J. Ryan. Norwalk, CT: Appleton and Lange, 1994.
- Fredericks, David N. and Jack S. Remington. "Tularemia Presenting as Community-Acquired Pneumonia." Archives of Internal Medicine, 56 (18)(October 14, 1996): 2137+.
- Schofield, Hal. "Infectious Disease: Leporidae's Revenge." Patient Care, 30 (14)(September 15, 1996): 171+.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (404)332-4559. http://www.cdc.gov.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.