Tularemia is an infectious disease carried by rabbits and rodents and is normally transmitted to humans via tick bites or through infection via hunting activities—handling and skinning wild rabbits, for example, can be a high-risk activity. Tularemia is "virulent," fast-acting (though not usually lethal), and has also been toyed with as a biological weapon.
In 2000, cases of tularemia spiked on Martha's Vineyard. So what did the disease detectives at the CDC do? Packed their suitcases, put on their fedoras and hazmat suits, and got to work. This 2001 report from the New England Journal of Medicine (by doctors Bela T. Matyas, Katherine A. Feldman, Donna Stiles-Enos, David T. Dennis, and several others) relates some delightfully bizarre scenes in delightfully austere language. Try to visualize these moments, as if you were directing the film version:
F. tularensis was cultured from blood and lung tissue of a 43-year-old man who died of primary pneumonic tularemia. He delayed seeking medical care for his illness, which began within one week after he mowed a lawn...
We visited the suspected site of exposure of each patient and the 1978 outbreak site. At three sites we recreated possible activities that led to exposure, such as mowing the lawn and cutting weeds (“weed whacking”), and collected air samples using personal air samplers attached to the lawn mower and to the person who used the mowing equipment. Investigators wore protective gear while performing these activities. Samples of grass clippings, water, and soil were also collected. Small mammals were trapped at five properties, and we obtained serum samples from all dogs that lived at suspected sites of exposure. Samples of mammal tissue were examined by direct-fluorescence antibody staining, and mammal serum was tested for antibodies with use of an agglutination assay. Samples of air, grass, water, soil, and animal tissue were cultured for F. tularensis.
Cultures of three lawn-mower filters, 15 samples of cut grass, 11 air samples, 3 samples of raw water, and 9 samples of soil and mulch were all negative for F. tularensis.
The tularemia movie in my mind has a Sofia Coppola/Virgin Suicides vibe, the coldness of manicured lawns and lab equipment offset by the animal heat of illness, confusion, worry, and intense research.
The doctors set 442 night traps during their investigation, catching 40 animals (skunks, rats, voles, several species of mice) to test for the disease, and concluded those who got sick from mowing lawns had "aerosolized" some parts of a creature that had been infected.
In the end, the culprits were lawn mowers and "weed whackers"—in the right hands, the shots of people mowing lawns (the dew on the grass, the sweat on someone's forehead, the moment of aerosolization) would be worth the price of admission.