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Fleas with plague found in La Plata County

Fleas are one of the primary transmitters of plague. San Juan Basin Public Health has confirmed the presence of plague in a sample of fleas collected in La Plata County. (Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
San Juan Basin Public Health urges residents to take precautions

Officials with San Juan Basin Public Health say laboratory testing confirms the presence of plague in a sample of fleas collected in south central La Plata County.

SJBPH collected the fleas and sent them for testing at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Public Health Laboratory as part of an ongoing CDPHE epidemiological investigation related to the death of a 10-year-old La Plata County resident on July 5, said Tiffany Switzer, SJBPH’s deputy director of operations, in an interview with The Durango Herald.

The flea specimens were tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a news release.

SJBPH and CDPHE are contacting residents near where the plague-positive fleas were collected and encouraging residents to take precautions.

“With a local sample of fleas testing positive for plague, it’s critical residents protect themselves,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, in the release. “The community near the location of the positive sample is being notified directly, but all residents in La Plata and Archuleta counties should be on alert and take steps to control the presence of fleas and wildlife around homes.”

Plague has been found in animals in multiple Colorado counties this summer.

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.

Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks, the release said.

Pets can also be infected with plague when the infection spills over from rodent populations. SJBPH strongly advises the use of veterinary-approved flea control products.

SJBPH investigates prairie dog population die-offs for the presence of plague. Residents should notify SJBPH if an active colony of prairie dogs or population of other small mammals suddenly disappears, the organization said in the release. Residents should not eradicate or kill prairie dogs on their property as this increases the risk of transmission and contracting plague.

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

According to the release, the risk of contracting certain animal-borne diseases increases during the summer when humans and animals are frequently in close contact. Most human plague cases are acquired directly from fleas.

SJBPH said 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.


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