The Ontario Natural Resources Ministry is warning of a possible tularemia epidemic in beavers after the carcass of a beaver was found with tularemia in the Pickle Lake area.

Tularemia is a plague-like disease which can be fatal to beaver, muskrat and rabbits. The disease is most often spread by water.

Although tularemia is uncommon in humans, it can be transmitted to people through contact with the body fluids of infected animals. The symptoms of tularemia in humans include fever, headaches, chills, sweating, nausea, swollen lymph nodes and eye infections if the bacteria enters the eye.

The ministry has advised Health and Welfare Canada and health officials in northern communities so they are aware of the situation. The area affected includes the Albany and Winisk watersheds.

In 1949, the nearby Severn River watershed was the site of a severe epidemic of tularemia. A less serious outbreak occurred from 1965 to 1967 in the area of Big Trout Lake. No cases were reported for years until scattered outbreaks were identified throughout northwestern Ontario in the recent past.

“If the past history is any indication it appears we may be due for an outbreak,” said the Ministry of Natural Resources in a statement in November.

Although the one case has been confirmed, no other incidents have been reported nearby. “As far as the area is concerned, there has been no complaints or any indication of the disease reported,” said Peter Small, conservation officer in the MNR’s Moosonee office. “But we’ve made people in the area aware of the situation.” Trappers have been advised of precautions to reduce the risk of infection. They have been advised to wear disposable gloves when handling carcasses, wash pelt tables and knives thoroughly, check the liver for small white spots and if any are found to freeze the carcass as soon as possible, wash any cuts immediately, seek medical attention if symptoms occur, do not consume the carcass if there are internal abnormalities, cook meat from fur-bearing animals thoroughly and do not feed carcasses to domestic animals.

The ministry has also asked trappers to look for signs such as empty beaver houses, declining populations, evidence of carcasses and white spots in the liver of animals. Also, if trappers find any dead beaver or muskrat with small white spots on the liver, they should freeze the carcass and contact the district MNR office.