CDPHE and Montezuma County Public Health Department investigating and monitoring plague activity in southwest Colorado

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STATEWIDE (June 27, 2023) — The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working closely with the Montezuma County Public Health Department to investigate and monitor plague (Yersinia pestis) activity. At this time, public health officials have identified one human case of plague in Montezuma County in an adult. The exposure likely occurred on private property, and the investigation is ongoing. CDPHE and Montezuma County Public Health Department will provide additional information as it becomes available. The risk to the general public is low, but Coloradans can take steps to help protect themselves from plague, which is typically present in Colorado each year in infected fleas or animals.

The first signs of illness typically include fever, headache, weakness, muscle aches, cough, shortness of breath, and chills. Sometimes people develop one or more swollen, painful lymph nodes (called buboes). Plague symptoms may be similar to those of the flu. However, symptoms of plague usually are more serious. Some people may cough up blood, feel sick to their stomach, throw up, or have stomach pains. Pneumonia can develop quickly after the first symptoms start. Because early plague symptoms may be similar to those of the flu, anyone with symptoms of the flu or pneumonic plague who may have been exposed to rodents or fleas should seek medical care right away. Several types of antibiotics are effective for treating the disease. Plague pneumonia can be transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets during prolonged in-person contact.

Plague is caused by bacteria (Yersinia pestis) that can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals. Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, woodrats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks. Prairie dogs are very susceptible to plague. Because they are active above ground, they serve as a visible alert that plague may be present if they suddenly disappear. If you see dead rodents in an area where you normally see active rodents, contact your local public health agency. Residents should not kill prairie dogs — if plague is present, this could increase the risk of transmission. Pets can also be infected with plague by infected fleas. The use of veterinary-approved flea control products is strongly advised.

While people can contract animal-borne diseases at any time, the risk of certain illnesses increases during the summer when humans and animals are frequently in close contact. Most human plague cases are acquired directly from fleas. People can control the presence of wildlife and fleas around their homes to reduce their exposure and risk of contracting plague. Coloradans should:

  • Avoid fleas. Protect pets with a veterinary approved flea treatment and keep them on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats.
  • Stay 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.
  • Avoid all contact with wild rodents, including squirrels. Do not feed or handle them.
  • Not touch sick or dead animals.
  • Prevent rodent infestations around your house by clearing plants and materials away from outside walls, and reducing access to food items.
  • Consult with a professional pest control company to treat the area around your home for fleas.
  • Contact a veterinarian if your pet becomes ill with a high fever and/or an abscess (i.e. open sore) or swollen lymph nodes. Pets with plague can transmit the illness to humans.
  • Ensure children are aware of these precautions and know to tell an adult if they have had contact with a wild animal or were bitten by fleas.

For more information, visit the department’s animal-related diseases webpage.