An outbreak of the infectious disease tularemia struck Nantucket Island last week, sending four people to hospital. Health officials issued a warning not only advising people to steer clear of dead rabbits, but to also avoid any animal which appears disoriented. No additional cases have been reported since the initial outbreak, though - due to the incubation period extending up through 14 days - Authority on the island remains on alert. The source of the outbreak remains undetermined.
Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, is a extremely virulent illness, though rarely deadly in humans if properly treated. Symptoms include fever, lethargy and anorexia, and are treated with a variety of antibiotics. The disease is spread from animal-to-human; while rabbits and ticks are the primary culprits, many mammals (including a several species of rodent) can be carriers.
It is also considered one of the six most deadly biological weapons, ranking alongside anthrax and smallpox as potentially catastrophic agents of war. The ease with which one can aerosolize the virus makes it an attractive option for bio-warfare, with both the United States [US] and the Soviet Union [USSR] having tested it as such during the cold-war era. A former Soviet scientist even reported that tularemia was weaponized and deployed by the USSR during World War II, but that report still remains unconfirmed.
Reported cases of the virus have been on the rise in the last decade-and-a-half (especially in the US), though each outbreak has been highly localized. Measures to prevent exposure include thoroughly cooking wild game, wearing protective gloves when handling any rodent (be it for disposal or meal preparation), only drinking purified water, and using insect repellent to avoid tick bites. No vaccine is currently available for the general public.