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Last Updated

12 Nov 2002

Source: Reuters, March 7, 2002.

US Warns Doctors of Possible Biological War Agent

By Paul Simao

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Federal health officials urged doctors and other health providers on Thursday to be on the lookout for outbreaks of tularemia, a potentially fatal bacteria that could be used as a biological warfare agent.

Tularemia, known also as "rabbit fever" or "deer fly fever," is usually acquired through tick or insect bites or by close contact with infected animals, particularly rabbits and muskrats.

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency had released information about tularemia in a bid to educate the public about a disease that is rare and easily treated with antibiotics.

The CDC did not say its report on the disease was related to any recent outbreaks.

The Atlanta-based CDC heightened its vigilance of potential biological warfare agents after an outbreak of anthrax killed five people and infected 13 others in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Those infected with tularemia often suffer from high fevers, ulcers at the site of infection, inflammation of the area leading from the mouth to the larynx and, in more severe cases, pneumonia.

If left untreated, between 5 percent and 15 percent of sufferers die. Mortality is as high as 60 percent when pneumonia sets in and drugs are not administered.

Although tularemia was removed from the nation's list of notifiable diseases in 1994, it was reinstated in 2000 amid concern that it could be used as a biological weapon. There were 1,368 cases of the disease between 1990 and 2000.

"It's highly infectious and 10 to 50 organisms, either inhaled or injected, can reliably cause disease," said Dr. Katherine Feldman of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases.

Feldman added that the threat to the public's health would likely be greater if bioterrorists released the bacteria in an aerosol form, though she noted that it could also be used to contaminate food and water supplies.

Health experts, however, noted that tularemia does not progress as fast as the feared anthrax bacteria, which was spread last year through contaminated mail.

The agency said tularemia seemed to be more of a problem in Arkansas, Missouri and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana as well as the Martha's Vineyard region of Massachusetts.