After the tragic death of a 10-year-old in Colorado’s La Plata county, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) confirmed a plague outbreak in the area. Six counties, including San Miguel, El Paso, Boulder, Huerfano, and Adams, host plague-infected fleas that carry the disease.
Lest one think it’s the sign of the apocalypse—or we’ve been transported back to the Middle Ages—plague is a normal pathogen in the Colorado ecosystem (and throughout the western US), although it rarely leads to fatalities among the human population.
“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. While it’s rare for people to contract plague, we want to make sure everyone knows the symptoms. The disease is treatable if caught early. Let a medical provider know if you think you have symptoms of plague or if you think you’ve been exposed,” Jennifer House, Deputy State Epidemiologist and Public Health Veterinarian for CDPHE, told KDVR.
Don’t Panic: Plague Is Treatable
Plague is caused by a bacteria that’s carried by fleas. The fleas spread the contagion through their bites to both animals and humans. Treatment usually consists of antibiotics.
“Plague is a very serious illness, but is treatable with commonly available antibiotics. The earlier a patient seeks medical care and receives treatment that is appropriate for plague, the better their chances are of a full recovery,” states the CDC.
As early intervention is vital, recognizing the symptoms is paramount. Symptoms for bubonic plague, the most common form, include sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness, and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes (called buboes).
Avoiding the Plague Like the Plague
Taking cautionary measures, especially if you live in or near the affected counties, is crucial. Plague can hit your pets as well as your family, so flea control is mandatory.
The CDPHE recommendations include:
- 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.