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Colorado reports human case of plague in Montezuma County

An electron micrograph shows Yersinia pestis bacteria, the cause of bubonic plague. (Associated Press)
No details about area or circumstances of case provided

Montezuma County Public Health has identified a human case of plague in a resident, according to a news release Monday from the department.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Montezuma County Public Health Department continue to investigate the case and “will provide additional information as it becomes available,” the news release said. The unsigned news release was emailed to The Journal by Vicki Schaffer, public information officer for Montezuma County.

The news release did not provide details about when, how or where the infected resident might have contracted the plague or whether the infected resident was involved with other groups of people in activities where the potentially fatal disease could be spread.

In 2021, a 10-year-old girl in La Plata County died from causes associated with plague. Although the girl was identified as a member of the 4-H Club, no other people or domesticated animals were known to have been infected.

Lab tests confirmed that the girl died July 5, 2021, after being treated at Mercy Regional Medical Center. It was the first plague death in Colorado since 2015.

Within two weeks, officials with San Juan Basin Public Health announced that laboratory testing confirmed the presence of plague in a sample of fleas collected in south central La Plata County. San Juan Public Health and CDPHE contacted residents near where the plague-positive fleas were collected and encouraged residents to take precautions.

The disease is caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals such as squirrels, prairie dogs and wood rats.

It can also be transmitted when a person has plague pneumonia, they may cough droplets containing the plague bacteria into air.

San Juan Basin Public Health said that investigates prairie dog population die-offs for the presence of plague. Residents should notify local health officials if an active colony of prairie dogs or population of other small mammals suddenly disappears.

Plague is treatable. Symptoms include the sudden onset of high fever and swollen lymph nodes.

According to San Juan Basin Public Health, people can take precautions against the plague by:

  • Avoiding fleas and protecting pets with a flea treatment and keep them on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats.
  • Avoiding sleeping alongside pets.
  • Keeping pets up to date on vaccinations, away from wildlife and protected from fleas with veterinary approved topical medications, flea collars or other methods of prevention.
  • Staying out of areas where wild rodents live. If you enter areas inhabited by wild rodents, wear insect repellent and tuck your pant cuffs into your socks to prevent flea bites.
  • Avoiding all contact with wild rodents, including squirrels. Do not feed or handle them.
  • Not touching sick or dead animals.
  • Clearing plants and materials away from outside walls, reducing access to food items and setting traps to prevent rodent infestations around your house.
  • Treating known rodent sites around your home with flea powder or a suitable insecticide.
  • Seeing a physician if you become ill with a high fever or swollen lymph nodes.
  • Contacting a veterinarian if your pet becomes ill with a high fever or an abscess such as an open sore or swollen lymph nodes.
  • Making children aware of these precautions so they know to tell an adult if they have had contact with a wild animal or were bitten by fleas.