Should ‘rabbit fever’ be a concern for Illinois?

Springfield — In a state that has seen a steady decline in rabbit hunters, the bad news sort of seems like nature “piling on.”

But health officials say the confirmed human case of tularemia – better known as rabbit fever – does not mean handling wild rabbits is dangerous.

Illinois Department of Public Health veterinarian Connie Austin said rabbit fever is uncommon and exposure is often accidental. Other than rabbits, it can be transmitted by tick or deer fly bites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, people can run over those rabbits with their lawnmower and that can make the organism get up in the air where somebody would inhale it,” she said.

Austin said people shouldn’t touch wild animals and be careful removing dead animals from your yard.

“If you have to remove it from the yard because you have pets or children and want to get it out of there, make sure you do that carefully where you would take a shovel, put it into a plastic bag, double bag it,” she said.

The reported case was in Cook County.

“Because we did find a dead rabbit that tested positive for tularemia, we wanted to alert people in the neighborhood and even across the state, because it can happen anywhere, to be aware,” she said, adding that it was premature to warn rabbit hunters about handling the animals.

Tularemia symptoms may last for weeks, most patients completely recover.

Austin said symptoms often include a fever, but can vary depending on transmission route.

“So if you inhale it, you can get pneumonia; you can have a fever,” she said. “If you’re bitten by a tick – because that’s another way it’s transmitted – you can get an ulcer on your skin from that.”

Other symptoms sudden fever, chills, headaches, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough and progressive weakness. People can also develop pneumonia with chest pain, cough, and difficulty breathing. Additional symptoms can include ulcers on the skin or mouth, swollen and painful lymph glands, swollen and painful eyes and a sore throat, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, Cook County Animal and Rabies Control issued an alert to residents confirming that a wild rabbit found in Tinley Park tested positive for the disease.

Tularemia is common in rabbits, hares and rodents; and has been found in nearly every state in the country. Health officials warn people should keep pets and children away from dead animals, especially rabbits.

A case of rabbit fever reported last fall also caught national attention.

The man in that case did tell doctors that he had been a hunter about 50 years ago  – and health officials did confirm that some people may get the disease by handling or skinning infected rabbits, muskrats, prairie dogs and other similar animal.

“But, given his long absence from hunting, this wouldn’t explain how he acquired the infection five decades later,” the CDC offered.

Last month, when two dead muskrats tested positive for the disease in a nature area in Green Bay, health officials there urged people to protect themselves and their pets from ticks and biting flies.

State officials in Kentucky issued a similar warning in April – and closed a 240-acre field – when a rabbit tested positive for the disease.

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