Utah health officials are reporting the first human plague case in the state since 2009 in an elderly resident who died from the bacterial infection earlier in August.

Image/ National Atlas of the United States
Image/ National Atlas of the United States

This is the 12th human plague case reported in the United States since April 1. The other 11 cases were reported from Arizona (two), California (one), Colorado (four), Georgia (one), New Mexico (two) and Oregon (one).

Plague is a rare, life-threatening, flea-borne illness that is maintained in a rodent-flea transmission cycle.  Species such as prairie dogs, black footed-ferrets, squirrels, and rabbits are especially susceptible and experience high mortality upon infection.  Plague is naturally occurring in Utah, and typically seen in the prairie dog populations each year.

The investigation continues into the circumstances surrounding the Utahn’s illness.  The patient may have contracted the disease from a flea, or contact a dead animal.  At this time, public health officials believe there was no travel history indicating that the Utah resident traveled anywhere else where plague is common.

Human plague occurs in areas where the bacteria are present in wild rodent populations.  The risks are generally highest in rural and semi-rural areas, including campsites and homes that provide food and shelter for various ground squirrels, chipmunks and wood rats, or other areas where you may encounter rodents.

Plague is a very serious illness, but it is treatable with commonly available antibiotics. The earlier a patient seeks medical care and receives treatment that is appropriate for plague, the better the chance for a full recovery.  Some common symptoms may include fever, headache, chills, and weakness. If you are experiencing symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.