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Plague linked to death of 10-year-old girl in Colorado, CDPHE investigating reports in six counties

Prairie dogs
Posted at 2:52 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 17:16:37-04

DENVER – State health officials are urging the public to remain vigilant after plague was found in animals and fleas from six Colorado counties, including in La Plata County, where a 10-year-old girl died from the disease.

Plague is caused by bacteria (Yersinia pestis) that can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals, a spokesperson with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said Thursday. If left untreated, it can be deadly – but antibiotic treatment is effective against this bacterium if caught in the early stages of disease, the World Health Organization notes in a fact sheet. Symptoms include the sudden on-set of high fever and/or swollen lymph nodes, chills, head and body aches, weakness, vomiting and nausea.

It is frequently detected in rock squirrels, woodrats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks. Prairie dogs are very susceptible to plague, according to the CDPHE.

“Since they are active above ground, if they suddenly disappear, they serve as a visible alert that plague may be present,” the CDPHE spokesperson said. “If you notice decreased rodent activity in an area where you normally see active rodents, contact your local public health agency.”

Residents are advised to not kill prairie dogs on their property and to contact their local public health agency, as it could increase the risk of transmission if plague is present in a certain area. Pets can also be infected with plague by infected fleas, and the use of veterinary-approved flea control products is strongly advised by state health officials.

The department recommends you take the following steps to protect yourself against plague:

  • 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.

So far this year, plague activity has been identified in San Miguel, El Paso, Boulder, Huerfano, La Plata, and Adams counties, the CDPHE said.

Editor's note on Friday, July 23 at 3:13 p.m.: The 10-year-old child who died from the disease was a girl and not a boy. The story has been corrected.