A rare form of the plague caused the death of a two-sport Colorado teen, Taylor Gaes, the day after his sixteenth birthday. Gaes experienced muscle aches and a high fever, but his family believed he had just come down with a case of the flu. He succumbed to the bacterial disease within four days and his family did not know the exact cause of his death until later.
Though Gaes died on June 8, health officials did not make the cause of his death public until late on Friday, June 19. A flea carrying the bacteria responsible for the disease is believed to have bitten the teen and infected him with the deadly blood-borne bacteria.
The teen’s parents urged the health officials to inform the public that their son had died from the plague in part to warn anyone who had visited their home near Fort Collins, in Larimar County, Colorado, that it was possible they could have also got bitten by infected fleas. So far, nobody else who was at the house, located in a rural area of Colorado has showed any symptoms of also having the same disease.
An ash-scattering ceremony was held in honor and remembrance of Gaes, who was a two-sport athlete, playing both baseball and football. Around 200 people attended the ceremony, which was held on the teen’s family’s property. According to a spokeswoman for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, Katie O’Donnell, the incubation period for them coming down with the disease expired on Monday.
Many people think of the plague as a disease that flourished and died out after the Black Death ran its course in Europe, but an average of seven people per year in the United states come down with one of the three main types of the disease. If treated early enough, each type can be cured, but if the person does not receive treatment soon enough, all of the three types are often fatal. The Centers for Disease Control reports that an average of 11 percent of the people who contract any of the three types succumbs to it and dies.
In Madagascar, the disease in endemic, and outbreaks frequently occur. An outbreak there in December 2013 killed 32 people.
The last time that anybody in Larimar County, Colorado had come down with the plague was in 1999. Prairie dogs and other rodents native to the region where the teen contracted septicemic plague carry fleas infected with the bacteria responsible for causing the disease.
The last time and place that anybody in the United States had died from the plague previous to Gaes was in New Mexico in 2013. The last death from the disease in Colorado was in 2004. Both died from the same type that the Colorado teen likely had, the second-most common variety, septicemic plague, in which the bacteria enters directly into the bloodstream and the symptoms resemble those of the flu, according to Colorado’s public health veterinarian, Jennifer House.
The other two main types are the most common type, bubonic plague, and the least common form, pneumatic plague. The bubonic variety spreads into the lymphatic systems of the people it infects, and creates a swelling of the lymph nodes, while the pneumatic form causes fluid to build up in the lungs of the people who are infected, producing pneumonia in them. It can be spread through the sneezing and coughing of people who are infected with this form.
Oddly enough, the bacteria Yersinia pestis is the culprit that causes all three forms of the disease. All three types are carried by fleas which fed off the blood of infected rodents.
Currently, the wildlife on the Gaes family’s property is being tested in a collaborative effort by the CDC and Larimar County health officials to determine if any of the animals might be carrying the plague. If none of the animals that are tested are found to be carriers of the disease, the exact source that caused Gaes to become infected with the plague might never be known.
Cases of the plague in the United states are relatively rare, but people come down with of the the three main forms every year, like Colorado teen Taylor Gaes, who died of the disease earlier this month on June 8. The two-sport high school athlete died of the most life-threatening of the three types, septicemic plague, a type that goes straight into the blood of the people it infects and results in flu-like symptoms.
Written By Douglas Cobb
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