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Rabbit on Patience Island Tests Positive for Tularemia, a Highly Contagious Bacterial Disease

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Division of Agriculture and the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) are notifying the public about a New England cottontail rabbit from Patience Island that tested positive for tularemia (Franisella tularensis) recently.

Located off the northwest coast of Prudence Island in Portsmouth, Patience Island is currently home to a New England cottontail rabbit (NEC) population, a candidate species for Federal Endangered Species protection. These rabbits on Patience Island have been used as a source for stocking rabbits throughout their historic range from Maine south to New York. As part of this large-scale regional effort DEM staff annually trap rabbits to move to areas throughout the region to bolster declining NEC populations. All rabbits trapped on Patience Island are given a general health evaluation.

On January 27, 2021 a male NEC was captured on Patience Island to be part of a restoration. This rabbit died on February 3, 2021 in captivity while being prepared for release. The rabbit was necropsied on February 4, 2021 and a positive test for tularemia was returned on March 3, 2021.

Tularemia, or rabbit fever, is a highly contagious infectious bacteria that affects humans, pets, and a wide range of wildlife species, especially rabbits, squirrels, and other rodents. It is spread by biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks, as well as contact with infected animals. Tularemia can also be spread through inhalation or ingestion of bacteria particles, and as few as 10 to 50 particles can cause an infection. Tularemia is not known to be spread person to person. Tularemia is rare and only one human case has been reported in Rhode Island since 2008. Symptoms include fever, skin ulcers and enlargement of lymph nodes. Tularemia is a treatable infection; however, if left untreated it can be fatal to humans, pets, and wildlife.

DEM is warning people to avoid being bitten by insects or any contact with wildlife while on Patience Island. Ticks that transmit tularemia to humans include the dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), the wood tick (D. andersoni), and the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum). Other transmission routes include deer fly bite, inhalation, ingestion, and through skin contact with infected animals. To ensure optimal protection, people should use insect repellent and wear personal protective equipment, including long sleeves and pants, as well as face and eye protection.

RIDOH's ongoing Tick Free Rhode Island campaign highlights the three keys to tick safety: repel, check, and remove.

Repel: Keep ticks off you, your children, and pets by:

- Avoiding wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves. If you are going to be in a wooded area, walk in the center of the trail to avoid contact with overgrown grass, brush, and leaves at the edges of the trail. You can also spray your clothes with permethrin to keep ticks away. Make sure to not spray this on your skin.

- Wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts when outside.

- Tucking your pants into your socks so ticks do not crawl under your clothes.

- Wearing light-colored clothing so you can see ticks more easily.

Check: Check yourself, your children, and pets, for ticks by:

- Taking a shower as soon as you come inside if you have been in grassy or wooded areas. o Doing a full-body tick check using a mirror; parents should check their kids for ticks and pay special attention to the area in and around the ears, in the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in their hair.

- Checking your pets for ticks as well because they can bring ticks into the home.

Remove: Remove ticks from your body, as well as from children and pets, if you find them.

- Use a set of tweezers to remove the tick. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight up.

- If you don't have tweezers, use your fingers with a tissue or rubber gloves.

For more information visit: https://www.northeastwildlife.org/disease/tularemia https://health.ri.gov/ https://newenglandcottontail.org/states/rhode-island

For more information about DEM divisions and programs, visit www.dem.ri.gov. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RhodeIslandDEM or on Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM) for timely updates.