With a recent death caused by tularemia in Big Horn County and at least 11 other known cases in the state, Wyoming Department of Health officials are warning people to take steps to protect themselves.

State Epidemiologist  Dr. Tracy Murphy says of the outbreak "To see this many cases reported in Wyoming in a single year is striking".

Murphy says the last time a the state had a report of a death caused by the disease was 2010. Over the last 25 years the highest reported number of cases of the disease--also known as "rabbit fever" --was six in 2001.

The higher numbers of the disease this year may be related to a population explosion of rabbits, which are common carriers of the disease along with other rodents. Deti says tularemia is unusual in that it can be transmitted by insect bites, contaminated water, insufficiently cooked meat, handling animals infected with the disease, or inhaling contaminated dust or animal material.

Health officials are urging people to take steps to protect themselves including:

  • Avoid bathing, swimming or working in untreated water and avoid drinking untreated water.
  • Avoid handling rabbits, squirrels or other animals that appear sick.
  • Wear rubber gloves when skinning animals, especially rabbits and squirrels; skin animals in a well-ventilated area.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling sick or dead animals.
  • Cook meat thoroughly before eating, especially rabbit and squirrel.

Deti says people also should take steps to specifically protect themselves against ticks:

  • Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to see ticks crawling on clothing.
  • Tuck pant legs into socks.
  • Apply insect repellents such as those containing 20 percent or more DEET and/or picaridin.
  • Upon return from potentially tick-infested areas, search self and children for ticks and remove if found.
  • Check pets for ticks; use tick control products recommended by veterinarians.

Symptoms of tularemia include fever, swollen lymph glands, chills, inflamed eyes, sore throat, mouth sores, skin ulcers and diarrhea. If caused by inhaled bacteria additional symptoms can include headache, joint pain and progressive weakness and pneumonia.

Because tularemia is a bacterial disease, it can be treated with antibiotics.