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Two weeks after a Colorado resident tested positive for pneumonic plague, the number has now risen to four confirmed cases. All four individuals are believed to have contracted the disease after contact with the same dog that has died from the disease. The canine potentially came into contact with a prairie dog, rabbit or other rodent infested with plague carrying fleas during a walk in Adams County, near Denver.
The initial human infected was the dog’s owner. The dog and his owner were on a walk in an open space area in Adams County when the dog was likely bitten by a flea off of a prairie dog. Prairie dogs are found all over Colorado, typically in parks, open spaces, farmland and vacant lots. After becoming infected with the plague, the dog passed it to his owner, who is still recovering from the disease and the three new individuals before succumbing to the illness and dying. Colorado officials have confirmed there are fleas infected with plague in the same location where the dog was believed to be infected.
While the initial patient is still hospitalized, the three new cases were not as severe. All three have been treated and are no longer contagious. However, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are continuing to monitor these individuals and those who may have come in contact with one of the infected. These four cases are the first in Colorado in 10 years.
While a rise to four cases of pneumonic plague over a two-week period is not a reason for Colorado residents to panic, it is a reminder that people need to be aware of their surroundings, even when out for a walk with the dog. Symptoms of pneumonic plague include fever and a headache along with weakness and shortness of breath. Symptoms will also include chest pain and coughing, with the latter potentially leading to spreading the disease. If untreated, pneumonic plate is life-threatening. As long as it is diagnosed and treated with antibiotics early, survival is likely.
Officials in Colorado are asking that people pay attention to help limit potential exposure to plague and other diseases. Avoiding contact with dead rodents or other animals is number one on the list, for both people and pets. Following veterinarian advice when it comes to treating pets for fleas is another suggestion from officials. Residents should watch for sudden die-offs in nearby rodent populations. A die-off of a number of prairie dogs may indicate the animals were carrying plague infected fleas. The local health department should be notified immediately in this instance. By following the recommendations, health officials hope to avoid a potential pneumonic plague epidemic.
There has not been a plague epidemic in the United States in 90 years, and Colorado officials do not want the state to become the next outbreak hotspot. With care and public awareness, the hope is the four cases of pneumonic plague in Colorado will not rise any higher. While human cases are not frequent, the outdoor lifestyle many Colorado residents enjoy combined with confirmed plague carrying fleas does increase the chance of more cases.
By Carl Auer