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Health officials with San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) report investigating a confirmed case of human plague in Archuleta County, Colorado. Officials say the individual died.

Oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis/CDC

Interim Executive Director of SJBPH, Tiffany Switzer said, “While this disease is very rare, it is important to be aware of how you can be exposed and the symptoms it can cause. If you think you have symptoms consistent with plague, seek health care immediately and let them know you may have been exposed.”

This is the second human case of plague in the state this year–the first case reported in June in Montezuma County.

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. It can also be transmitted when a person has plague pneumonia, they may cough droplets containing the plague bacteria into air. If these bacteria-containing droplets are breathed in by another person, they can cause pneumonic plague. Typically, this requires direct and close contact with the person with pneumonic plague.

If detected early in infection, plague is treatable in both people and pets. Symptoms may include the sudden on-set of high fever, swollen lymph nodes, or shortness of breath.

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Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, woodrats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks.

Colorado has reported nearly 70 human plague cases since 1970, according to the CDC, with only New Mexico reporting more (>250).

SJBPH reminds residents that the risk of contracting certain animal-borne diseases, while present year-round, increases during the summer when humans and animals are frequently in close contact. Most human plague cases are acquired directly from fleas; SJBPH stresses the importance of controlling the presence of wildlife and fleas around homes through the following measures:

Plague Doctor

  • Wear repellant and appropriate clothing when heading outdoors.
  • Keep pets up to date on vaccinations, away from wildlife, and protected from fleas (with veterinary approved topical medications, flea collars, or other methods of prevention)
  • Avoid sleeping alongside your pets.
  • Do not feed or handle wild animals, especially those that appear sick.
  • Do not handle dead animals or animal waste.
  • 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.
  • Prevent rodent infestations around your house by clearing plants and materials away from outside walls, reducing access to food items, and setting traps.
  • Treat known rodent sites around your home with flea powder or a suitable insecticide.
  • See a physician if you become ill with a high fever and/or swollen lymph nodes. Plague is a treatable illness.
  • 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.