UPDATE: Plague victim identified as 16-year-old high school student

Larimer County, CO health officials are reporting a confirmed plague fatality in a Cherokee Park area male Friday. The individual died on June 8. This is the first Larimer County resident confirmed to have contracted plague since 1999.

Oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis/CDC

According to the ongoing investigation, the young man may have contracted the disease from fleas on a dead rodent or other animal on the family acreage.  The Larimer County Department of Health and Environment is coordinating the investigation, working with the experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the State Health Department, and the Larimer County Coroner’s office.

Because many people visited the family’s home after the young man’s death – before the cause of death was identified – the family is reaching out to those who visited their home or attended the scattering of his ashes on the property.  There is a small chance that others might have been bitten by infected fleas, so anyone who was on the family’s land in the last 7 days should seek medical attention immediately if a fever occurs.  The last exposure to others was likely on June 14.

Those who attended services in Fort Collins on June 10 or June 13 are not at any risk, nor is there any risk from past contact with the deceased, nor recent contact with his family members and friends.

Plague can spread through rodent populations in a localized area – often resulting in mass animal “die-offs.”  The only animals with confirmed plague so far this year in Larimer County were in an area of Soapstone Natural area this is not open to the public.

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. It is found in animals throughout the world, most commonly rats but other rodents like ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, rabbits and voles. Fleas typically serve as the vector of plague. Human cases have been linked to the domestic cats and dogs that brought infected fleas into the house.

People can also get infected through direct contact with an infected animal, through inhalation and in the case of pneumonic plague, person to person.

Related: Two Weld County residents sickened with Rabbit fever

Yersinia pestis is treatable with antibiotics if started early enough.

In recent decades, an average of seven human plague cases are reported each year nationwide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most human cases in the United States are scattered in rural areas and occur predominantly in two regions:

  • Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado
  • California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada

Related articleThe US ranks 11th in human plague cases worldwide during the last decade