In Picture Canyon, northeast of Flagstaff, reports of dead prairie dog sightings have caused public health officials to find, collect and test the fleas in the surrounding area. The results from the lab found that the fleas were carrying a common type of bacteria associated with plague, Yersinia Pestis. This bacterium presents itself in three main forms: bubonic, pneumonic or septicemic. The strains confirmed in the tested fleas were both bubonic and pneumonic, making this the first sign of any plague activity in Flagstaff since its last occurrence in September 2014, which took place in Dorney Park.
Seeing a roaming prairie dog throughout Flagstaff area during day is the norm for the residents of Coconino County; therefore, when the decrease in prairie dog activity became noticeable, that was when concerns started to be raised. Usually, whenever there is a sudden change in prairie dog sightings, it is a big indicator that there is a likelihood of disease. The county actually keeps a map of all prairie dog colonies that happen to be in close proximity to private property, so those areas are now being checked on a regular basis to ensure public safety. Flagstaff officials have returned to the canyon to search a much larger range of the area, disinfect prairie dog burrows and gather more fleas possibly carrying plague. Those test results will be available within the week.
The Arizona Department of Health Services says that nature experiences a great deal of ups and downs regarding plague activity over a period of time. For the most part, the factors that generally influence the plague occurrences in Flagstaff are flea and rodent populations, as well as climate conditions. Historically speaking, plague is nothing new to the state of Arizona. Its presence is not only well-known in the Grand Canyon state, but Colorado and New Mexico as well. There are a about a handful of people who become infected each year, but it normally only occurs in one of the three states. The last reported death as a result of this plague was near the Grand Canyon in 2007, when a flea from a mountain lion had infected a biologist with the National Parks Service.
Coconino County officials are asking hikers to be taking great precautions when on the trails. They are being instructed to be check their legs and ankles thoroughly, use insect repellent whenever outdoors and to stay away from animals that appear to be sick or dead. For those individuals who are pet owners, be aware that dogs can easily become a host because they are closer to the ground. Knowing that, health officials strongly suggest applying flea powder to pets whenever the animals re-enter the home or vehicle, because they can survive for up to two months inside. Cats happen to be more inclined to becoming a host or getting the disease more than dogs, due to their appetite for rodent hunting.
The disease is treatable, but only with antibiotics. If left untreated, the end result is possible death. If left too long without treatment, the result could be loss of fingers, toes or other body parts. As safety precautions, Flagstaff officials have posted signs at trail entrances, which warn canyon visitors of confirmed fleas carrying plague present in the area. Some say that for now, it might be best for hikers and nature lovers alike to just wait it out.
By Kameron Hadley
Photo By bobdole369- Flickr License