Officials in the Coconino County Health Services District announced on Tuesday that once again some rodent fleas in the vicinity of Flagstaff have tested positive for plague. Specifically, fleas in the area northeast of Flagstaff near Townsend-Wynona Road and Interstate 40 were identified with the plague bacteria, but health officials caution that the disease may be more widespread.
According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Northern Arizona is one of two areas in the United States with regular human infection. Along with our region, the other areas include Northern New Mexico, Southern Colorado, California, Southern Oregon and Western Nevada. In total across the entire United States only 10-15 people become infected by the plague, a bacteria called Yersinia pestis.
Mostly, the plague infects rodents, rabbits, small mammals, and sometimes the predators that prey on them. This is the case in Coconino County. Health officials have tested the fleas that live on the prairie dogs in the area and found them to be carrying the bacteria. What alerted officials to the presence of the plague was the increase in die off of prairie dogs in the identified region.
However, the plague can be transmitted to humans through bites from infected fleas, physical contact with infected animals, or inhaling the droplets from a cough of an infected person. Most often this occurs when free roaming domesticated animals like dogs and cats become infested with infected fleas and bring them into the home.
Most people associate the plague with the “Black Death” of the 14th century that is estimated to have killed 100 million people. Today, we understand that the plague is caused by a bacteria that is easily avoided and at worst can be treated with antibiotics. However, the effectiveness of the treatment is best assured when antibiotics are administered as soon as possible as the incubation period (or the time from initial infection to presentation of symptoms) can be as few as two days. While the plague is curable, the mortality rate remains at about 14% in the United States and of the cases that go untreated up to 60% are fatal.
Typically, once infected a person will experience the hallmark symptom of enlarged and painful swelling of one or more lymph glands in the groin, armpit or neck along with fever, chills and fatigue (Bubonic plague). If left untreated this can progress into a condition of Septicemic plague where the bacteria multiply and spread throughout the blood stream. Additionally the bacterium can infect the lungs causing Pneumonic plague, which is almost always fatal if not treated immediately.
Still, the plague is easily avoided with some simple precautions. Coconino County Health Services District officials recommend the following precautions.
- Do not handle sick or dead animals
- Prevent pets from roaming loose
- De-flea pets regularly
- Avoid exposure to rodent burrows and fleas
- Use insect repellants when hiking, camping, woodcutting and hunting
- Wear rubber gloves when skinning and cleaning wild animals
- Do not camp near rodent burrows and avoid sleeping directly on the ground
- If you experience the symptoms of plague, see your physician immediately
While the reports of “the plague” sound severe, it is a bacteria that is easily avoided and treated if you know what to look for.