A NSW resident is believed to be the first probable case of a highly contagious disease not reported in Australia since 2011, caught from a common animal.
A NSW resident is believed to be the first probable case of a highly contagious disease not reported in Australia since 2011, caught from a common animal.

Extremely rare disease resurfaces after animal bite

Health authorities in New South Wales have issued a warning after discovering a probable case of an "extremely rare bacterial disease" that hasn't been seen in Australia for almost a decade.

Further testing is being carried out to confirm the diagnosis of tularaemia in a woman who was bitten and scratched by a ringtail possum in a northern Sydney suburb in March.

She has since developed symptoms of the disease including swollen lymph glands, fatigue and a sore throat, NSW Health said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.

Tularaemia can affect a range of animals including possums.
Tularaemia can affect a range of animals including possums.

"Tularaemia is an extremely rare bacterial disease, which can be transmitted to humans from infected animals but not from human-to-human," the department said.

Only two cases of tularaemia have previously been reported in Australia. Both people were bitten or scratched by possums in Tasmania in 2011.

NSW Health said historically, the infection has only been found in two possums in Australia "which died in separate clusters in 2002 and 2003".

"The type of bacteria present in Australia is less virulent than the type seen in North America, and there have been no deaths associated with the disease in Australia," the department said.

Tularaemia can affect a range of animals including rabbits, hares, rodents and wildlife such as possums.

According to the federal health department, it was first described in the US in 1911 and is also known there as "rabbit fever" and "deer fly fever".

"Tularaemia is a debilitating illness, rife amongst wild animals and common in the Rocky Mountains, California, Texas, Oklahoma and Martha's Vineyard in the US, as well as parts of Eastern Europe (Kosovo), China, Japan, Scandinavia, and Siberia," the Public Health Laboratory Network states.

NSW Health Acting Director of Communicable Diseases, Keira Glasgow, said the best way to prevent infection is to avoid touching or handling any wildlife.

"If you have become unwell with these symptoms after recently touching a possum, especially if you were bitten or scratched, it is important to seek medical treatment early," she said.

Ms Glasgow said the disease is "highly contagious" but most people fully recover with appropriate antibiotics.

NSW Health said the woman was bitten and scratched by a possum. Picture: Sarah Waters
NSW Health said the woman was bitten and scratched by a possum. Picture: Sarah Waters

The warning follows an alert issued in early May after three people in NSW were diagnosed with "parrot fever".

Three locals in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow area have been infected with the rare bacterial infection, psittacosis, since early April, NSW Health said in a statement.

"Psittacosis is a disease caused by the bacterium Chlamydia psittaci which is carried by birds," the department states.

"Humans most commonly catch the disease from infected birds by inhaling the bacteria from secretions and droppings."

The state has also recorded an increase of cases of Legionnaires' disease this autumn.

NSW Health on Monday said early symptoms "can be similar to symptoms of COVID-19" so it is important to seek advice as soon as possible.

"Businesses reopening following COVID-19 closures are reminded that building owners and occupiers have a legal obligation to ensure airconditioning cooling towers are properly maintained, to reduce the risk of Legionnaires' disease," the health department said.

Symptoms of the disease, commonly linked to infected towers, can develop up to 10 days after exposure and include fever, chills, a cough and shortness of breath, leading to severe chest infections such as pneumonia.

Originally published as 'Extremely rare' disease resurfaces



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