A Squirrel In Colorado Has Tested Positive For The Plague

Jul 14, 2020, 8:03 AM | Updated: 8:29 am
FILE: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)...
FILE: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Health officials in Colorado have announced a squirrel in Jefferson County has tested positive for the bubonic plague.

The squirrel was discovered July 11 in the Town of Morrison, according to a statement from Jefferson County Public Health. The statement did not indicate what led health officials to test the squirrel for the plague.

Morrison is approximately 17 miles southeast of Denver.

“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,” according to the JDPH statement. “Humans may be infected with plague through bites from inflected fleas, by the cough from an infected animal or by direct contact (e.g., through a bite) with blood or tissues of infected animals.”

Health officials cautioned pet owners that cats are “highly susceptible” to plague and may die if not treated with promptly with antibiotics. Dogs are not as susceptible to plague, although they can carry plague-infected rodent fleas.

The squirrel is the first case of plague reported in Jefferson County, Colorado, authorities said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the plague was first introduced to the United States by rat-infested steamships in 1900. The last urban plague epidemic in the U.S. was in Los Angeles from 1924 – 1925.

“Since then, plague has occurred as scattered cases in rural areas,” according to the CDC.

Plague is primarily found in rodents in semi-arid upland forests and grasslands. Most human cases happen in northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado, California, southern Oregon and far western Nevada.

Reported cases of human plague in the United States from 1970 - 2019 (CDC)

Reported cases of human plague in the United States from 1970 – 2019 (CDC)

Many types of animals can be affected by plague, scientists report, including squirrels, rats, prairie dogs, chipmunks, smice, voles and rabbits. Wild carnivores can also become infected by the plague by eating other infected animals.

“Over 80% of United States plague cases have been the bubonic form,” according to the CDC. “In recent decades, an average of seven human plague cases have been reported each year (range: 1–17 cases per year). Plague has occurred in people of all ages (infants up to age 96), though 50% of cases occur in people ages 12–45. It occurs in both men and women, though historically is slightly more common among men, probably because of increased outdoor activities that put them at higher risk.”

Symptoms include a sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes, authorities said. It’s usually the result of a bit from an infected flea, although humans can also become infected through contact with contaminated fluids or tissues, or through infectious droplets.

Plague is treated with commonly available antibiotics

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A Squirrel In Colorado Has Tested Positive For The Plague