State health authorities in Colorado are investigating a potential outbreak of the literal plague across a handful of counties, after it's believed a 10-year old girl died of the rapidly-acting disease. "The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment noted lab-confirmed reports of plague-infected fleas and animals in areas including La Plata County, where the 10-year-old died," Fox News writes based on local media.
It's the state's first known death from the plague since 2015, and scientists have now found the plague in tests of mammals and fleas from at least six counties, including La Plata county - which includes the city of Durango, a popular summer tourist destination in southwest Colorado. The counties named include San Miguel, El Paso, La Plata, Boulder, Huerfano and Adams, a Colorado Department of Public Health statement indicated. "Public Health is doing an epidemiological investigation and wants Coloradans to know that while this disease is very rare, it does occur sometimes, and to seek medical care if you have symptoms," it added.
Deputy state epidemiologist and public health veterinarian Jennifer House said in a press release related to the health crisis that "In Colorado, we expect to have fleas test positive for plague during the summer months. Awareness and precautions can help prevent the disease in people," after a slight historical uptick in cases spanning back over the past half-decade, though most didn't result in deaths.
It spreads to humans through bites of infected fleas or through contact with infected animals via the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and causes severe symptoms which have a rapid onset.
According to the Denver Post:
Plague has a high fatality rate if untreated, but antibiotics are effective against it, especially in the early stages. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills and swollen lymph nodes. Less commonly, people can develop pneumonia-like symptoms or go into septic shock, if the bacteria spread to the lungs or through the bloodstream.
The report continued, "Prairie dogs, squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents many carry the fleas and become infected themselves, so everyone should avoid getting close to those animals, the health department said in a news release."
The CDC has written that "human plague infections continue to occur in rural areas in the western United States, but significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia." Some recent cases have been observed in places like Mongolia.
- Avoid fleas. Protect pets with a veterinary approved flea treatment and keep them on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats.
- Stay out of areas where wild rodents live. If you enter areas inhabited by wild rodents, wear insect repellent and tuck your pant cuffs into your socks to prevent flea bites.
- Avoid all contact with wild rodents, including squirrels. Do not feed or handle them.
- Do not touch sick or dead animals.
- Prevent rodent infestations around your house by clearing plants and materials away from outside walls, reducing access to food items, and setting traps.
- Consult with a professional pest control company to treat the area around your home for fleas.
- Contact a veterinarian if your pet becomes ill with a high fever and/or an abscess (i.e. open sore) or swollen lymph nodes. Pets with plague can transmit the illness to humans.
- Children should be aware of these precautions and know to tell an adult if they have had contact with a wild animal or were bitten by fleas.
Broadly in the United States what was a hoped-for 'post-pandemic' return to normal has seen a recent spate of headlines over everything from dangerous coronavirus variants, to vaccinated people becoming infected with COVID-19, to more recently a rare Monkeypox infection and potential outbreak in the US, to now concerns over the plague.