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Prevalence of Francisella tularensis in brown hare ( Lepus europaeus) populations in Lower Saxony, Germany

Francisella tularensis is the aetiological agent of tularemia. Hares, rabbits, and small rodents are the main hosts, but humans can be infected and develop severe clinical symptoms. In Germany, tularemia in humans was a rare disease during the last four decades, but since 2005, this zoonosis seems to be re-emerging. However, only very little is known about the prevalence in the host populations. Therefore, in a study performed from 2006 to 2009, we investigated 2,121 brown hares (Lepus europaeus) and 41 European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) located in Lower Saxony, Germany for the occurrence of this zoonotic bacterium by PCR and bacterial culture. F. tularensis subsp. holarctica was detected in an average of 1.1% of these animals. Two hot spots were found in northern Lower Saxony indicating outbreaks of tularemia even in hares. This study demonstrates the occurrence of F. tularensis subsp. holarctica within the hare population in Germany. Hunters, medical practitioners, and public health professionals should be aware of the risk which could come from this zoonotic agent especially in the hot spot area.

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