Bubonic Plague Found in Colorado Squirrel

Health + Wellness

Public health officials in Colorado are urging the public to be vigilant after a squirrel tested positive for bubonic plague. Courtney McGough / Flickr

The plague has recently seen an uptick in cases, and the World Health Organization has categorized it as a re-emerging disease. That’s why public health officials in Colorado are urging people to be vigilant after a squirrel tested positive for bubonic plague.

The squirrel was found in the town of Morrison, west of Denver. Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) officials announced the discovery of the plague-infected squirrel in a statement over the weekend. It’s the first case of plague in the county, according to the statement, as CBS News reported.

“Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and can be contracted by humans and household animals if proper precautions are not taken,” officials from JCPH said in the statement.

The county was prompted to test the squirrels after someone in Morrison reported seeing at least 15 dead squirrels around the town. Officials tested one, and since it was positive for bubonic plague, they expect others to be infected, according to CBS News.

The disease has been around for centuries and is responsible for the deadliest pandemic in human history. An estimated 50 million people in Europe died during the Black Death pandemic of the Middle Ages. JCPH warns the public that it can infect both humans and animals if proper precautions are not taken, according to CNN.

Every year, there are approximately 1,000 to 2,000 reported cases, but that is likely an undercounted number as there are many unreported cases, according to the WHO, as CNN reported. The U.S. reports up to a few dozen cases every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Two people died in Colorado from the plague in 2015, according to CNN.

Rodents are the main vector of plague transmission from animals to humans, but the disease can also be passed on through flea bites or from person to person. People can be infected from direct contact with blood or tissues of infected animals such as a cough or a bite, according to ABC News.

That danger hit home on the other side of the world this week when a teenage boy in Mongolia died from bubonic plague after eating a marmot, according to a separate report from CNN.

Marmots are large ground squirrels, a type of rodent, that have historically been linked to plague outbreaks in the region. Tests confirmed the teenager had contracted bubonic plague and authorities imposed quarantine measures in the Tugrug district of Gobi-Altai province, according to CNN.

The quarantine began on Sunday, but so far the 15 people authorities isolated who came into contact with the teenager have all been healthy.

JCPH warned pet owners that cats are highly susceptible to the plague from things like flea bites, a rodent scratch or bite, and ingesting an infected rodent. Cats can die if not treated quickly with antibiotics after contact with the plague. Dogs, on the other hand, are far less likely to pick up the plague. However, they can contract it through fleabites, according to ABC News.

In its statement, JCPH recommended several precautions to protect against the plague, including eliminating sources of food and shelter for wild animals, avoiding sick or dead wild animals and rodents, and consulting with vets about flea and tick control, as CBS News reported

“Risk for getting plague is extremely low as long as precautions are taken,” the statement said.

The statement also added that plague symptoms include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, nausea and extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes, which could occur within two to seven days after exposure to the bacteria.

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