New Mexico has reported human plague cases every year since 2011 and now health officials are investigating Yersinia pestis as the likely cause of death of a 52-year-old Santa Fe County woman.

Confirmatory testing is being conducted at the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) Scientific Laboratory Division.

Oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis/CDC

“Department of Health staff will go door-to-door to neighbors near the case to inform them about plague found in the area and educate them on reducing their risk,” said Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward, MPH. “Because the patient had pneumonia, health care providers and other close contacts of the patient who have been determined to have been exposed are taking preventive antibiotic therapy.”

LISTEN: Dr. Paul Ettestad, State Public Health Veterinarian with the New Mexico Department of Health discusses plague

Plague is a bacterial disease of rodents and is generally transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but it can also be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets.

Plague cases can occur at any time of the year in New Mexico, but most cases occur during the summer months. It is especially important now given the warm temperatures to take precautions to avoid rodents and their fleas which can expose people to plague. Pets that are allowed to roam and hunt can bring infected fleas from dead rodents back into the home, putting household members at risk.

Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. In most cases there is a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas. Rarely, plague infection can also cause pneumonia.

Plague symptoms in cats and dogs are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph node under the jaw. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced. Physicians who suspect plague should promptly report to NMDOH.

In New Mexico, there were two human plague cases in 2014, four human plague cases in 2013 with one fatality, one human plague case in 2012, two human cases of plague in 2011, and no cases in 2010.

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