Health officials in Arizona are on the alert after finding that fleas collected north of Flagstaff are infected with the deadly plague bacterium. The fleas were collected around trails at the popular hiking area in Picture Canyon, northeast of Flagstaff. Public health officials became alarmed when they notice a die-off of prairie dogs. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, as of April 3, the County Public Health Services District has disinfected prairie dog burrows or “towns”, and are conducting further studies.
This was the first time a test came back positive for plague in the county since September 2014. Residents have been advised to use insect repellent and to avoid handling sick or dead animals such as prairie dogs and squirrels. Other recommended measures include: keeping pets from roaming and hunting; don’t leave out pet food and water; clean up any areas where rodents live, such as woodpiles and abandoned vehicles.
The bacterium often infects rodents, such as prairie dogs and rats, which then transmit the bacterium through bites from infected fleas. The symptoms of the deadly disease usually appear within two to six days after exposure. Symptoms include high fever, weakness and chills, swollen lymph glands (e.g. in the underarm area and groin), as well as muscle pain.
In November, 2013, and 80-year-old man died of plague in New Mexico’s Bernalillo County. Three other people in New Mexico were infected but later recovered.
Plague spread over Asia, Europe and Africa several times over the past 1,500 years. The earliest known plague pandemic occurred during the 6th century and became known as Plague of Justinian, having taken the name of the Roman emperor of the time. Skeletal remains in Germany from 543 AD show signs of plague infection. In the 14th century, some estimate the human die-off in Europe to have reached 25 million souls. Known to science as Yersinia pestis, plague or ‘Black Death’ is thought to have reached Europe along the Silk Route from China. Eventually, the plague itself died out in Europe. During the 1800s, the Third Pandemic came out of Hong Kong and followed trade routes to ports around the world.
In the United States, various ports including New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle became plague portals. There were only a few isolated human cases, however.
The California ground squirrel is an excellent carrier of the plague, spreading the disease from one rodent to another. Plague was first discovered in Arizona in 1938 but the first human case there was not registered until 1950. Now well established, the Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico region is known affectionately, according to former Arizona State Epidemiologist David Engelthaler, as the Land of the Flea and the Home of the Plague.
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