Official: Grand Canyon biologist probably died of plague
November 9, 2007
PHOENIX ” A wildlife biologist at Grand Canyon National Park most likely died from the plague contracted while performing a necropsy on a mountain lion that later tested positive for the disease, officials said Friday.
The death of 37-year-old Eric York last week triggered a health scare that led to 49
people who had contact with him being given antibiotics as a precaution. None have shown symptoms of the sometimes-fatal disease.
York, who worked in the park’s cougar collaring program, became ill on Oct. 30 and called in sick for a couple of days before being found dead in his home on Nov. 2. Testing after his death was positive for the plague.
The biologist had skinned the lion and was exposed to its internal organs during the necropsy he performed three days before developing symptoms, said David Wong, an epidemiologist for the U.S. Public Health Service.
The cougar, which had died from the plague, was believed to have remained in back-country areas where park visitors wouldn’t normally go, officials said.
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York, whose family lives in Massachusetts, had worked in the Grand Canyon for two years. He had worked previously for state parks in California and had traveled to Nepal, Chile and Pakistan to work with protected animals.
The National Park Service is planning to review its safety guidelines for wildlife biologists and make possible recommendations for improvements. Park Superintendent Steve Martin said authorities were examining whether the guidelines were followed in York’s case.
Health officials in Arizona warned in September that the plague appeared to be on the rise and that more cases were likely after an Apache County woman was infected with the disease.
That case, the first human infection reported in Arizona since 2000, followed the discovery of an outbreak of the disease in prairie dogs in Flagstaff in August.
Arizona health officials have been wary about a plague outbreak because of greater activity in New Mexico and other nearby states in the past year. In New Mexico, the plague caused the death of a 3-year-old boy in June. The disease is endemic to the Southwest.
An average of 13 plague cases are reported in the United States each year. Fourteen percent of cases are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While Arizona health officials say the disease appears to be on the rise in the state, CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said plague cases weren’t increasing this year on a national level.
Plague is transmitted primarily by fleas and direct contact with infected animals. When the disease causes pneumonia, it can be transmitted from an infected person to a non-infected person by airborne cough droplets.
People were being warning to avoid contact with animal burrows and stay away from dead animals.
Cases are treatable with antibiotics, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that up to 50 percent are fatal if the disease causes pneumonia.