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Tularemia Infections in Alaska Snowshoe Hares

Snowshare hare - NPS PhotoVeterinarians working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) have noted an increased number of tularemia infections in Alaska Snowshoe hares during June of 2013. The first case of the year was confirmed with a hare brought into the office of a Fairbanks veterinary clinic. Testing at a diagnostic lab in Colorado confirmed the presence of Franciella tularensis in the dead animal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that tularemia is a disease caused by the bacterium F. tularensis. In Alaska, hares, beavers and muskrats are particularly susceptible to the bacteria. Large numbers of these small mammals will die during disease outbreaks.

People can be infected by tularemia through skin contact with infected hares, tick bites or ingestion of contaminated water or food. Infections can occur by inhaling dust or aerosols that contain the bacteria. This can happen through agricultural operations where machinery inadvertently runs over an infected carcass. Domestic pets can pass the disease onto humans, with cats being especially susceptible to tularemia.

Symptoms of tularemia vary with the route of infection. Swollen glands or a skin ulcer can appear after handling an infected animal or being bitten by a tick. Swelling and inflammation of eyes can occur if a person that has handled or butchered a hare touches their eye. A sore throat, mouth ulcers and swelling of the lymph glands can occur after eating or drinking contaminated food and water. The worst form of the disease comes from inhaling dust or mists that contain the F. tularensis bacteria. Symptoms of a lung infection include coughing, chest pain and difficulty breathing.

Francisella tularensis - CDC PhotoTularemia is not a common disease in Alaska. Only about one case is reported in the state every two years. It is difficult to diagnose since it is so rarely seen and the symptoms are easily mistaken for those of other diseases. Treatment involves the use of antibiotics for up to 21 days. Symptoms can last several weeks and most patients fully recover from the infections.

Prevention of tularemia starts with avoidance of dead hares. If one must be handled, it should be with a plastic bag or while wearing gloves. Avoid drinking untreated water that is downstream of muskrats or beavers. Dispose of dead hares where scavengers and pets cannot reach them. It is important to keep all pets away from hares. Infected pets can be treated if they are diagnosed soon enough. Use an insect repellent and wear long pants, long shirtsleeves and long sock to help prevention tick and deer fly bites. Remove tick from the skin immediately.

Tularemia is normally seen in the warmer months. Officials with the ADF&G encourage residents to contact them at 907.459.7206, if they observe a Snowshoe hare that seems ill, displays no fear of people or is lethargic.

Copyright © 2013 by Alan Sorum

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