On July 22, 2021, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced it was investigating the presence there of the plague after a 10-year-old died from causes associated with the disease.
Laboratory results confirmed that animals and fleas in at least six counties tested positive for a bacteria known asYersinia pestis, which is responsible for the plague. The bacteria can be transmitted to humans and pets through the bite of an infected flea.
“In Colorado, we expect to have fleas test positive for plague during the summer months. Awareness and precautions can help prevent the disease in people. While it’s rare for people to contract plague, we want to make sure everyone knows the symptoms,” said Jennifer House, CDPHE deputy state epidemiologist and public health veterinarian, in a news release.
Plague symptoms depend on how the patient was exposed and can take different clinical forms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Bubonic plague, which is one form, is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, headache, chills and weakness or swollen lymph nodes called “buboes. The bacteria multiply in the lymph node closest to the flea bite and if detected early is treatable with antibiotics. If not, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body and result in serious illness or death. The news release did not explicitly say what type of plague the child died from.
Though uncommon, plague infections in the Southwest U.S. occur nearly every year, and increase during the summer months when humans are more likely to come into contact with infected animals that may carry the bacteria and spread to fleas. Prairie dogs like those in Colorado are very susceptible to infection, but other carriers include rock squirrels, wood rats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks.
Health experts recommend avoiding fleas and putting all pets on a veterinarian-approved flea medication to reduce the risk of being bit. Staying out of areas with rodents and preventing rodent infestations around the home will also reduce the risk of infection. Pets infected with the plague can transmit the illness to their owners, so contact a veterinarian if a pet becomes sick with a high fever, swollen lymph nodes, or develop an abscess.