Thomas J. Inzana, the Tyler J. and Francis F. Young Professor of Bacteriology at Virginia Tech and his research team in the college's Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Diseases have begun a four-year program to develop a vaccine and diagnostic test for tularemia, which is commonly known as "rabbit fever." The etiologic agent of tularemia is Francisella tularensis, which the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) classifies as a Category A bioterrorism agent.
Tularemia is an infection characterized by ulcers, swollen glands, fever, and flu-like symptoms. The organism can spread through the blood and lymphatic systems to infect the respiratory tract, where it can cause more serious health problems. Pneumonic tularemia may have about a 30 percent mortality rate, according to Inzana.
While not uncommon in wildlife throughout the United States, Inzana says, it is a relatively rare disease in people. Only about 100-200 cases of tularemia in humans are reported every year, Inzana says. The bacteria are transmitted to humans and animals by ticks and biting flies, or can be ingested by wildlife from drinking water. Humans are also infected through minor cuts or abrasions on the hands by handling infected animals.
The military is concerned about F. tularensis because of its heartiness and its virulence. Whereas about 10,000 Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores are required to cause disease, only about 10 F. tularensis cells are required to cause disease, according to Inzana. The organism could conceivably be aerosolized and used as a bioterrorism agent at home or abroad; hence, the military interest. A World Health Organization Committee estimated that aerosol dispersal of 50 kilograms of virulent F. tularensis over a city of 5 million peop
Contact: Jeffrey S. Douglas