Though human cases are rare, Colorado health authorities are cautioning residents to take preventive measures as laboratory testing has confirmed reports of plague in fleas and animals.

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Plague might sound like an ancient scourge, but cases of this bacterial infection continue to this day, including in Colorado, where a 10-year-old girl has died from the disease.

The girl's death on July 5 is the state's first human plague death since 2015, per the Durango Herald, which reported that she had been a fourth grader who raised hogs in 4-H.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Thursday said laboratory testing had confirmed plague in a sample of fleas collected in La Plata County, where the girl resided. La Plata is one of six Colorado counties with confirmed reports of plague in animals and fleas this year, the department noted.

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Credit: Getty Images

The department attributed the girl's death to "causes associated with the plague."

San Juan Basin Public Health, a local public health agency based in Durango, is urging residents in the region to take steps to control for fleas and wildlife around their homes.

Is your neck of the woods at risk? Here's what to know about the transmission of plague and how to protect yourself.

What causes human plague?

Plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which is transmitted to people when they're bitten by infected fleas or have handled an infected animal, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Public health officials say the infection is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks.

Prairie dogs are particularly susceptible, Colorado health officials said in a news release alerting Coloradans to plague activity in the state. The sudden disappearance of prairie dogs, which are active above ground, can be a signal that plague may be present, health officials explained.

Per the CDC, plague typically occurs in rural areas in the western US, including Colorado, California, Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico, and Nevada. In the US, an average of seven cases are reported each year. In 2018 and 2019, there was one case per year and no deaths, CDC reports.

Symptoms can vary depending on how someone was exposed, says CDC. Flea-bite exposure, the most common type, can cause bubonic plague, which produces a sudden fever, headache, chills, weakness, and one or more swollen and painful lymph nodes, known as buboes.

It's also possible for someone to contract plague by handling the tissue or body fluids of a plague-infected animal or inhaling infectious droplets.

Plague is usually treatable with antibiotics. But if not treated in time, the infection can spread to other parts of the body, according to CDC.

Though plague infections in people are rare, the risk increases during the summer months when humans and animals are in close contact, say Colorado health officials.

How to protect yourself from the plague

To minimize the risk of becoming infected, Colorado health officials offer these prevention tips:

  • Avoid fleas. If you have pets, use a veterinary-approved flea treatment and keep pets away from wild rodent habitats.
  • Stay away from areas where wild rodents reside.
  • Don't feed or handle squirrels.
  • Don't touch dead animals.
  • Clear the area around your home of plants and other debris to prevent rodent infestations.
  • Have a pest control company treat the area around your home for fleas.
  • Contact your vet if your pet falls ill with a high fever or swollen lymph nodes.

All and all, the risk of human plague is low. But if you live or have traveled in an area where plague is transmitted and you have symptoms, you should seek care immediately.

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