Rabbit Plague Transmission Mystery Solved: Could Be Used as a Potential Bioweapon

Forum Health Rabbit Plague Transmission Mystery Solved: Could Be Used as a Potential Bioweapon

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    Rabbit Plague Transmission Mystery Solved: Could Be Used as a Potential Bioweapon

    Bacteria of the Francisella tularensis type are among the most infectious pathogenic representatives of their kind that are known to science to date. These cause the reportable zoonosis called tularemia, which is particularly common among rabbits – hence it is also known as “rabbit plague”. If transmitted to humans, the disease can even be life-threatening. For the first time, an American research team has been able to solve a long-standing riddle about the transmission of the disease, which provides another important piece of the puzzle in understanding this mysterious type of bacteria.

    Can be used as a potential biological weapon

    Due to the extreme risk of infection with the bacterium and the higher death rate in its American subtype, Francisella tularensis is also viewed as a serious potential bio-terrorist threat. It is estimated that only ten organisms would be enough to infect a person with it. A better understanding of the life cycle and behavior of the bacterium is therefore a top priority. So far it has been known that transmission from person to person is not possible. However, the bacterium can spread to humans through direct or indirect contact with infected animals.

    Bacteria in hibernation

    As far as the life cycle is concerned, the working group has now been able to shed more light on how the rabbit plague pathogens survive outside of hosts. These fall into a kind of hibernation, in which they are viable, but can no longer reproduce. This phenomenon was so far unsolved, although research has been dealing with the bacterium for more than 100 years. “The most important finding is that Francisella tularensis can survive in cold water without nutrients for more than six months in a dormant state,” adds research director Professor David Wagner. This gives the bacterium the ability to survive directly in the environment outside of a mammalian host. This is so unexpected because many other bacteria that can survive longer in the environment develop spores for this. An example of this is Bacillus anthracis, which also causes anthrax.

    Differences to the known plague

    Although the name “rabbit plague” would suggest a similarity with the plague-causing pathogen Yersinia pestis, they are completely different from one another. The plague pathogens that have occurred mainly in Europe only survive in a host or in flea vectors. Francisella tularensis, on the other hand, has the ability to survive long-term outside a host in the environment and remain infectious without forming spores or having to resort to a vector. “These study results have completely changed our view of the ecology of this bacterium,” emphasizes Wagner. Mammals are only a small but important aspect of the bacterium’s survival strategy.

    Routes of transmission of tularemia

    According to the researchers, tularemia cannot be transmitted from person to person, but infection can occur in the following ways:

    By insect bites When drinking contaminated water When in contact with infected animals When breathing in airborne particles containing bacteria

    Treatment and frequency

    So far the disease can only be treated with antibiotics. Existing resistances are currently the subject of further investigations. So far there are no vaccines against tularemia on the market. In terms of frequency, the research team reports that Francisella tularensis occurs naturally throughout the northern hemisphere. In Europe, however, only the less dangerous subtype holarctica is at home. However, the number of reported human cases is relatively low. For example, in 2016 a total of 230 tularemia cases were reported in the United States. In Europe, on the other hand, there are 500 to 1,000 cases every year, according to the Robert Koch Institute. Those who are frequently affected are mainly people who spend a lot of time in the great outdoors.

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Forum Health Rabbit Plague Transmission Mystery Solved: Could Be Used as a Potential Bioweapon