Colorado resident dies of plague; how you can avoid it

PUEBLO, Colo. (MEDIA GENERAL) — A Pueblo County resident has died of plague, according to the Pueblo City-County Health Department.

The health department said the person was an adult, but did not release any other details. They said this is the first time a Pueblo County resident has gotten plague since 2004. A teen in Larimer County died of the disease in June.

The health department said the person may have gotten the disease from fleas on a dead rodent or other animal.

About seven human cases of plague are reported each year nationwide. Most of them are in rural areas of southern Colorado, northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada.

How plague spreads

Plague, caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, is transmitted from rodent to rodent by infected fleas. The health department said plague can spread through rodent populations in a localized area, often resulting in mass die-offs. A prairie dog with plague was found in an area of Turkey Creek near the western edge of Pueblo County earlier this year, but health officials said it could be elsewhere in the county as well.

Residents are asked to report any unusual die-off of rabbits or prairie dogs to the health department at 719-583-4307.

Cats can be infected from flea bites or by direct contact with infected rodents. Plague infected cats will generally have a history of roaming freely in rural or semi-rural areas and their owners often report that they are known predators.

Symptoms of plague

People infected with plague usually show symptoms 2 to 6 days after coming in contact with plague. Symptoms include fever, chills, weakness, and swollen and painful lymph nodes. A few people get pneumonia (infection of the lungs) as a first symptom of plague. The infection then spreads to other parts of the body. If this disease is not treated right away, many people who get sick will not survive. Plague can be treated with antibiotics when caught in time.

Infected cats frequently exhibit swelling and sores around the mouth, head, and neck, and appear to be ill. Seek veterinary care for such animals. Since domestic cats and dogs can carry infected fleas into the home environment, it is also important to consult your veterinarian for information about flea control for your pets. While dogs rarely appear sick from plague, it is still important they are treated for fleas as they can still carry them into the home.

Tips to prevent plague

  • Avoid contact with all sick and dead rodents and rabbits. Look for the presence of blow flies or dead animal smell as evidence of animal die-offs. Prairie dog colonies that suddenly are not active may also be due to plague activity in the area. Report such die-offs to the Pueblo City-County Health Department at 583-4307.
  • While hiking, treat pants, socks, shoe tops, arms and legs with insect repellents.
  • If you hunt or trap rabbits or carnivorous wild animals, wear gloves and a respiratory mask while skinning or handling these animals. Fresh pelts may be treated with flea powder.
  • Keep your pets from roaming and hunting and talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product.
  • Do not let pets sleep in the bed with you. This has been shown to increase your risk of getting plague.
  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.
  • DO NOT feed or entice any rodent or rabbit species into your yard, back porch, or patio. Do not catch, play with, or attempt to hand feed wild rodents.
  • Eliminate rodent habitat, such as piles of lumber, broken cement, trash and weeds around your home, outbuildings and cabins.

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