Utah Public Health Officials confirmed last month that an elderly resident died from plague. The name of the individual, and where he lived has been withheld, but State officials say this is the first Utah resident to be diagnosed with plague since 2009.
Plague is a rare, life-threatening, flea-bourne illness that is maintained in a rodent-flea transmission cycle. Species such as prairie dogs, black footed-ferrets, squirrels, and rabbits are especially susceptible and experience high mortality upon infection. Plague is naturally occurring in Utah, and typically seen in the prairie dog populations each year. Since April 1 of this year, a total of 12 cases of human plague have been reported in residents of seven states: Arizona (2), California (1), Colorado (4), Georgia (1), New Mexico (2), Oregon (1) and Utah (1). The two cases in Georgia and the resident of California have been linked to exposures at or near Yosemite National Park. The investigation continues into the circumstances surrounding the Utahn's illness. The patient may have contracted the disease from a flea or contact with a dead animal. Utah public health officials believe there was no travel history indicating that the Utah resident traveled anywhere else where plague is common.
Human plague occurs in areas where the bacteria are present in wild rodent populations. The risks are generally highest in rural and semi-rural areas, including campsites and homes that provide food and shelter for various ground squirrels, chipmunks and wood rats, or other areas where you may encounter rodents.
Plague is a very serious illness, but it is treatable with commonly available antibiotics. The earlier a patient seeks medical care and receives treatment that is appropriate for plague, the better the chance for a full recovery. Some common symptoms may include fever, headache, chills, and weakness. If you are experiencing symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
To protect you, your family and your pets, Public Health Officials recommend the following precautions:
• Reduce rodent habitat around your home, work place, and recreational areas. Remove brush, rock piles, junk, cluttered firewood, and possible rodent food supplies, such as pet and wild animal food. Make your home and outbuildings rodent proof.
• Always wear gloves if you are handling or skinning wild animals to prevent contact between your skin and potential plague bacteria. Contact your local health department if you have questions about disposal of dead animals.
• Use repellant if you think you could be exposed to rodent fleas during activities such as camping, hiking, or working outdoors. Products containing DEET can be applied to the skin as well as clothing and products containing permethrin can be applied to clothing (always follow instructions on the label).
• Keep fleas off your pets by regularly applying flea control products. Animals that roam freely are more likely to come in contact with plague-infected animals or fleas and could bring them into homes. Keep pets away from wild animals. If your pet becomes sick, seek care from a veterinarian as soon as possible.
• Do not allow dogs or cats that roam free outside to sleep on your bed.
• Cook all wild game meat properly to a minimum of 165˚ F inner temperature.
• Clean and disinfect all knives and equipment used to process wild game.
• Do not feed raw game meat or inner organs to pets.
Notify your local Utah Division of Wildlife Resources if you see an unusual number of dead prairie dogs, squirrels or rabbits in any given area. Contact information for local offices can be found at: http.//wildlife.utah.gov/about-us/contact-us.html. San Juan County residents can also call the San Juan Public Health Office, in Blanding, at 435-678-2723.