Health authorities in New South Wales have issued warnings after finding possible cases of “very rare bacterial diseases” that have not been seen in humans in Australia for nearly a decade.
Further testing is underway to confirm the diagnosis of tularaemia in a woman who was bitten and scratched by a tail possum on the northern outskirts of Sydney in March.
Since then, he has developed symptoms of the disease including swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and sore throat, NSW Health said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“Tularaemia is a very rare bacterial disease, which can be transmitted to humans from infected animals but not from humans to humans,” the department said.
Only two cases of tularaemia have been reported in humans in Australia. Both men were bitten or clawed by possums in Tasmania in 2011.
NSW Health said historically, infections were only found in two possums in Australia “who died in separate groups in 2002 and 2003”.
“The type of bacteria that exists in Australia is less virulent than the type seen in North America, and there have been no deaths related to disease in Australia,” the department said.
University of Sydney researcher in 2017 found that the disease – “considered to be non-existent in the southern hemisphere” – exists in the wild ringtail possum population in Sydney.
Tularaemia can attack a number of animals including rabbits, rabbits, rodents, and wildlife such as possums.
According to the federal health department, this was first described in the US in 1911 and is also known there as “rabbit fever” and “flying deer fever”.
“Tularaemia is a debilitating disease, spread among wild and common animals in the Rocky Mountains, California, Texas, Oklahoma and the Martha Vineyards in the US, as well as parts of Eastern Europe (Kosovo), China, Japan, Scandinavia, and Siberia,” The Public Health Laboratory states.
Acting Director of NSW Health for Infectious Diseases, Keira Glasgow, said the best way to prevent infection is to avoid touching or handling wildlife.
“If you feel bad about these symptoms after having recently touched possums, especially if you are bitten or scratched, it is important to seek medical treatment early,” he said.
Ms Glasgow said the disease was “very contagious” but most people fully recovered with appropriate antibiotics.
The warning follows a warning issued in early May after three people in NSW diagnosed with “parrot fever”.
Three local residents in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow area have been infected with a rare bacterial infection, psittacosis, since early April, NSW Health said in a statement.
“Psittacosis is a disease caused by the Chlamydia psittaci bacteria carried by birds,” the department said.
“Humans most commonly catch disease from infected birds by inhaling bacteria from secretions and feces.”
The state has also noted increased cases of Legionnaires disease this fall.
NSW Health on Monday said the initial symptoms “could be similar to COVID-19 symptoms” so it is important to seek advice as soon as possible.
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“Businesses that reopened after closing COVID-19 are reminded that building owners and occupants have a legal obligation to ensure air conditioning cooling towers are well cared for, to reduce the risk of Legionnaires disease,” the health department said.
Symptoms of this disease, commonly associated with infected towers, can develop up to 10 days after exposure and include fever, chills, coughing and shortness of breath, which cause severe chest infections such as pneumonia.