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Health officials: Avoid the plague

Aspen Times Staff Report

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is urging Coloradans living in rural parts of the state to take precautions against plague.

The disease is spread by fleas which are carried by rodents such as ground squirrels, rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and chipmunks. Outdoor cats can also be carriers. Plague is a serious disease, but it can be treated with antibiotics.

John Pape, an epidemiologist for the Department of Health, issued a warning following the confirmation that a 48-year-old woman from near Canon City is suffering from plague. In late May, an elderly woman living in the Red Feather Lakes area of Larimer County died from the disease.

This year, plague has been confirmed in rodent populations in Montrose, Larimer and Pueblo counties. Pape said this may be a bad year for plague in Colorado, because the mild winter has allowed rodent populations to expand.

Fleas are not common on pets on Colorado’s Western Slope and in much of the West, Pape said, because they require more humidity to survive without a host animal. “They just dry up,” he said. But that doesn’t mean plague is not a threat, because fleas are able to survive quite handily on rodents.

“If Fido goes out roaming and finds a ground squirrel that’s just died, he’s gonna say `Oh, that smells good,'” Pape said. “The fleas are just waiting for something to hop onto – another host.” So Fido brings the fleas home.

Dr. Richard Hoffman, the state’s chief medical officer and epidemiologist, said in humans, typical early plague symptoms include sudden onset of high fever and chills, severe headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting and a general feeling of illness.

According to a release from the Department of Health and Environment, if plague is not diagnosed and treated quickly, life-threatening complications may develop. The patient may develop painful, swollen lymph glands in the underarms and groin. If this symptom is present, the disease is known as bubonic plague.

In recent Colorado plague cases, some patients’ lungs have been affected, as well. This symptom can lead to coughing that may also spread the disease. For this reason, the Department of Health recommends that relatives of plague victims receive antibiotics.

Some precautions can be taken to lessen the danger of contracting plague, including: Do not feed rodents or any other wildlife. Rodent-proof your house and eliminate debris around buildings. Use insect repellent when hiking. Avoid contact with sick and dead rodents, including rabbits. Report animal die-offs to local or state health departments. Consult a physician if sudden, unexplained illness occurs within about six days after outdoor activities.


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