State: ‘Rabbit fever’ cases spiking; hunters should take care

Photo: Cottontail rabbitThe number of human cases of the bacterial disease, tularemia, continues to rise in Colorado.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment now reports 12 confirmed cases of the disease also known as 'rabbit fever' so far this year, with many more suspected. Normally, the state sees four cases a year.

“We haven’t seen this many tularemia cases in Colorado since the 1980s,” said State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer House. “Historically, we see cases of tularemia in hunters, and the disease is so widespread this year, we want to make sure our hunters understand the risks.”

The state health department believes tularemia may have spread to 30 counties in the state.

Health officials say people can get the disease if they handle infected animals like rabbits and rodents, or are bitten by infected ticks or deer flies.

Hunters are most at risk when skinning game and preparing and eating the meat.

Health officials offer hunters these tips:

  • Harvest only small game that looks and acts healthy and be wary of lazy rabbits.
  • Avoid hunting in areas where dead small game has been found.
  • Wear gloves when handling small game animals, and wash your hands after removing your gloves.
  • Cook all game meat thoroughly to 160-170 F.
  • Notify your public health department or local wildlife office if you notice sick or dead rabbits or rodents.

Tularemia is potentially fatal for people but can be treated effectively with antibiotics if caught early.

Nine of the 12 people infected in Colorado this year had to be hospitalized for treatment.