San Juan Basin Public Health
Laboratory testing confirms the presence of plague (Yersinia pestis) in a sample of fleas collected in south central La Plata County. Officials at San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) collected the fleas and sent them for testing at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) Public Health Laboratory as part of CDPHE’s epidemiological investigation. The flea specimens were tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). SJBPH, with the support of CDPHE, is reaching out to residents near where the plague-positive fleas were collected and encourages residents to take precautions.
“With a local sample of fleas testing positive for plague, it’s critical residents protect themselves. The community near the location of the positive sample is being notified directly, but all residents in La Plata and Archuleta counties should be on alert and take steps to control the presence of fleas and wildlife around homes,” said Liane Jollon, Executive Director of SJBPH.
Plague has been found in animals in multiple Colorado counties so far this summer. It is caused by bacteria that can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals. Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks. Pets can also be infected with plague when the infection spills over from rodent populations. The use of veterinary-approved flea control products is strongly advised.
SJBPH investigates prairie dog population die-offs for the presence of plague. Residents should notify SJBPH if an active colony of prairie dogs or population of other small mammals suddenly disappears. Residents should not eradicate or kill prairie dogs on their property as this increases the risk of transmission and contracting plague.
Plague is treatable. Symptoms include the sudden on-set of high fever and/or swollen lymph nodes.
“It is important to know the symptoms of plague. If you think you may have plague, seek health care immediately and let them know you may have been exposed,” said Jennifer House, Deputy State Epidemiologist and Public Health Veterinarian for CDPHE.
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. Control the presence of wildlife and fleas around homes through the following measures:
- Avoid fleas. Protect pets with a flea treatment and keep them on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats.
- Avoid sleeping alongside your pets.
- 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)
- 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.
- Avoid all contact with wild rodents, including squirrels. Do not feed or handle them.
- Do not touch sick or dead animals.
- 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.
To learn more about the symptoms, treatments, and other information for plague, visit sjbpublichealth.org/communicabledisease/. Information is also available from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment at https://cdphe.colorado.gov/animal-related-diseases/plague or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/plague/.