Human plague case confirmed by Colorado authorities
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Human plague case confirmed by Colorado authorities

After a series of suspicious test results sparked an investigation last week, public health officials in Pueblo County, Colorado, have now confirmed a case of plague in a local resident.

The plague is a bacterial infection known to have decimated the European population in the mid-14th century, with what became known as the “Black Death” and one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

But as this latest case shows, the plague is not yet relegated to the history books. Yersinia pestisThe bacteria that causes the disease circulates naturally in many parts of the world in rodents, other small animals, and fleas.

This means that, in rare cases, the plague can also affect humans. An average of seven cases are reported in the United States each year, most of which are bubonic, characterized by swollen, pus-filled lymph nodes. Most cases are in a region spanning northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado, with another region spanning California, southern Oregon, and western Nevada.

Although the origin of the Colorado case is still under investigation, human cases of plague are usually the result of an infected flea bite or handling an infected animal. For example, earlier this year, the first human case of plague in Oregon in eight years was found to likely be caused by an infected domestic cat.

With this in mind, the Pueblo County Department of Public Health and Environment (PDPHE) has asked the public to take a number of precautions, including:

  • Avoid contact with dead animals
  • Protect your home from rats by removing places where they can hide, breed and feed, such as wood piles and pet food containers.
  • Use insect repellent to prevent flea bites
  • Flea treatment for pets
  • Do not let animals sleep in bed with you

If symptoms occur, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends seeking immediate medical attention due to the severity of the illness. The main symptoms to watch for when suffering from bubonic plague include sudden fever, chills, headache, weakness, and swollen and painful lymph nodes.

These symptoms can provide health care professionals with an indication of the presence of plague, and the diagnosis can be confirmed by laboratory tests using samples taken from swollen lymph nodes or from the blood.

Although it is a serious disease, the plague is fortunately treatable.

“Plague can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but an infected person must be treated promptly to avoid serious complications or death,” Alicia Solis, program manager for PDPHE’s Office of Communicable Diseases and Emergency Preparedness, said in a statement.