Squirrel in Colorado tests positive for bubonic plague, advisory warns against contact with sick, dead animals

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, usually found in small mammals and their fleas, and can be contracted by humans and pets if proper precautions are not taken


                            Squirrel in Colorado tests positive for bubonic plague, advisory warns against contact with sick, dead animals
(Getty Images)
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A squirrel has tested positive for the bubonic plague in the town of Morrison in Colorado's Jefferson County. The squirrel is the first case of plague in the county this year, according to the Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) department.

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, usually found in small mammals and their fleas, and can be contracted by humans and household animals if proper precautions are not taken, warned JCPH health officials. Bubonic plague is the most common form of plague. The disease is transmitted between animals via their fleas and, as it is a zoonotic bacteria, it can also transmit from animals to humans.

Symptoms of plague may include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, nausea, extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes, occurring within two to seven days after exposure. Jefferson County health officials have said that anyone experiencing these symptoms should consult a physician immediately. 

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While plague has been responsible for widespread pandemics throughout history, including the so-called Black Death that caused over 50 million deaths in Europe during the 14th century, today it can be easily treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early and the use of standard preventative measures. Without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death. “Plague can be a very severe disease in people, with a case-fatality ratio of 30% to 60% for the bubonic type, and is always fatal for the pneumonic kind when left untreated. Antibiotic treatment is effective against plague bacteria, so early diagnosis and early treatment can save lives,” says the World Health Organization (WHO). 

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Symptoms of plague may include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, nausea and extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes, occurring within two to seven days after exposure (Getty Images)

Humans may be infected with plague through bites from infected fleas, by the cough from an infected animal or by direct contact (such as through a bite) with blood or tissues of infected animals. Cats are highly susceptible to plague and may die if not treated promptly with antibiotics. Cats can contract plague from flea bites, a rodent scratch/bite or ingestion of a rodent. Dogs are not as susceptible to plague but they may pick up and carry plague-infected rodent fleas. “Pet owners who suspect their pets are ill should consult a veterinarian. All pet owners who live close to wild animal populations, such as prairie dog colonies or other known wildlife habitats, should consult their veterinarian about flea control for their pets to help prevent the transfer of fleas to humans,” says the Jefferson County health department. 

The JCPH has recommended precautions that people can take to protect themselves and their pets. This includes eliminating all sources of food, shelter and access for wild animals around the home, not feeding wild animals, and maintaining a litter and trash-free yard to reduce wild animal habitats. “People and pets should avoid contact with sick or dead wild animals and rodents. Use precaution when handling sick pets. Have sick pets examined by a veterinarian. Consult with your veterinarian about flea and tick control for your pets. Keep pets from roaming freely outside the home where they may prey on wild animals and bring the disease home with them,” says the advisory.

The report from Colorado comes after Chinese authorities confirmed a case of the bubonic plague in inner Mongolia. On July 6, China confirmed the disease in a herdsman from Bayannur city, located in western Inner Mongolia, about 899 km from Beijing. Local authorities in the town of Bayannur issued a citywide warning for plague prevention shortly after it was confirmed, which will remain in place for the rest of the year. 

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), currently human plague infections continue to occur in rural areas in the western US, but significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia. From 2010 to 2015 there were 3,248 cases reported worldwide, including 584 deaths, says the WHO. 

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Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.