20 May 2020

NSW Health is urging people to avoid touching possums following the first probable case of the rare disease tularaemia in a NSW resident.

The woman was bitten and scratched by a ringtail possum in a Northern Sydney suburb in early March, and since developed symptoms including swollen lymph glands, fatigue, and a sore throat. Further testing is continuing to confirm the diagnosis.

NSW Health's Acting Director of Communicable Diseases, Ms Keira Glasgow, said that while the disease is highly contagious, most people fully recover with appropriate antibiotics. Tularaemia is an extremely rare bacterial disease, which can be transmitted to humans from infected animals but not from human-to-human.

“The best way to prevent tularaemia is to avoid touching or handling any wildlife,” Ms Glasgow said.

Only two cases of tularaemia have been reported in people in Australia previously, both of whom had been bitten or scratched by possums in Tasmania in 2011. 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.

“If you see sick or injured wildlife, do not pick it up or try to rescue it. Instead, contact the experts at your local licensed wildlife care group or local veterinarian,” she said.

Symptoms of tularaemia include fever, chills, fatigue, body aches, headache and nausea, which appear within two weeks of exposure to the bacteria. People exposed to the bacteria through bites and scratches to their skin will also develop an ulcer at the wound.

“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,” Ms Glasgow said. In an emergency, always call Triple Zero (000).

Worldwide, tularaemia can affect a wide range of animals including rabbits, hares, rodents and wildlife. The infection has only been found in two possums in Australia, which died in separate clusters in 2002 and 2003.

Contact details for local wildlife care groups can be found on the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and an app called “IFAW Wildlife Rescue” can be downloaded from the app store.

The Taronga Conservation Society’s Australian Registry of Wildlife Health is assisting the NSW Health investigation in this rare occurrence of the disease.

Find more information on tularaemia.