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Possible plague death reported in La Plata County

Case would mark first such death since 2015
An electron micrograph shows Yersinia pestis bacteria, the cause of bubonic plague. (Associated Press file)

A La Plata County resident is suspected of having died from the plague, San Juan Basin Public Health reported Thursday. If confirmed, it would be the first plague death in Colorado since 2015.

SJBPH was notified about the potential case Wednesday. While initial test results indicated a potential case of the plague, the diagnosis could not be confirmed until additional testing is completed by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Testing results will likely be available as soon as Monday, said Tiffany Switzer, SJBPH deputy director of operations.

Only one other case of plague, identified in El Paso County, has been reported in 2021.

SJBPH did not release the person’s identity.

In a letter emailed Thursday to 4-H Weaselskin Club members, leaders of the club said a 4-H member, age 10, died Monday from the plague.

“Medical and health professionals are trying to track down where she contracted the disease,” the email reads. “At this time, that is still unknown.”

The email was sent by Angela Fountain with the La Plata County CSU Extension and assistant director of 4-H Youth Development.

Jann Smith, La Plata County coroner, confirmed the child had a suspected case of plague but said the Coroner’s Office has not determined the official cause of death.

Family members declined to comment for this story.

Social media posts expressed prayers and condolences for the family. The 4-H letter included statements from the family reminding others to be aware of the danger of plague.

The letter, signed by Mike and Rachael Latham, leaders of the 4-H Weaselskin Club, said the girl was in fourth grade at Sunnyside Elementary School.

“She was raising hogs in 4-H this year and had just finished playing softball. She had a most beautiful smile and was so very sweet!” the letter said.

The plague is caused by bacteria that can be transmitted to humans by the bites of infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals.

The bubonic plague killed millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages. Human plague infections continue to occur in rural areas in the U.S. West.

Modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague, but without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death, according to the CDPHE.

Plague frequently is detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks, according to an SJBPH news release.

The risk of contracting certain animal-borne diseases increases during summer months when humans and animals are in closer contact, although the risk is present year-round.

Symptoms of plague include fever, headache, chills, extreme weakness, painful lymph nodes, abdominal pain, bleeding into the skin and blackened skin or tissue, according to CDPHE.

SJBPH recommended controlling the presence of wildlife and fleas around homes as well as wearing repellent and appropriate clothing when heading outdoors.

Wild animals should not be fed or handled, especially those that appear sick. Nor should dead animals or animal waste be handled.

Pets should be kept up to date on vaccinations and protected from fleas.

“Most human plague cases are acquired directly from fleas so keeping pets on flea protections will decrease risk to both pets and people,” the news release said.

It is important that children are also aware of these precautions and know to tell an adult if they have had contact with a wild animal, SJBPH said.

SJBPH investigates prairie dog population die-offs for the presence of plague. If an active colony of prairie dogs suddenly disappears, people should report the incident to SJBPH.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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