Colorado Reports Human Case of the Plague

( – The bubonic plague is a potentially deadly disease caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. It is spread by rodents and other wild animals. In the mid-1300s, the plague spread widely, killing over 20 million people in Europe within a five-year period — about one-third of the population on the continent. While some may believe the bubonic plague is a thing of the past, it is not.

On July 8, officials in Pueblo County, Colorado, reported that one person in the area contracted the plague. However, the area’s Department of Public Health and Environment didn’t give any information about the person or their condition. While in the 1300s, the bubonic plague was a sure death sentence, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true today. The disease is treatable with antibiotics if caught early but can be highly fatal if caught in its late stages. UCLA Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology Dr. Timothy Brewer said the bacterium arrived in North America around the turn of the 20th century. It has been endemic ever since.

The bubonic plague is found in prairie dogs and other small mammals in Colorado. It can spread from person to person, but that is a rare occurrence. Infection usually happens when someone is bitten by an infected flea or from touching a dead or sick animal. Between 2005 and 2021, there were 72 cases of bubonic plague infections in humans in Colorado. Of those, 11 were fatal — about 15%. It’s unclear how the person in Pueblo County contracted the disease.

To avoid infection, certified infection control practitioner Erica Susky suggested staying away from rodents and fleas when possible. Pets should also be kept mostly indoors and leashed when outside. If a domestic animal is infested with fleas, the problem must be handled promptly and completely. She also suggested using insect repellent while outside and advised hunters to wear gloves when handling dead animals. Anyone suspecting exposure should seek medical attention right away.

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