Laboratory testing confirmed a 10-year-old La Plata County girl’s death was associated with the plague, according to a San Juan Basin Public Health news release.
The La Plata County Coroner’s Office confirmed that Kinley Mitchell died July 5 after being treated at Mercy Regional Medical Center. She was a fourth grade student at Sunnyside Elementary School and raised hogs in 4-H, according to a letter from 4-H Weaselskin Club members. It is the first plague death in Colorado since 2015.
“On behalf of all of us at SJBPH, our hearts go out to the family while we support the state’s thorough investigation to keep residents safe,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH.
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 was completed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The CDPHE testing confirmed the plague case Friday, according to the SJBPH news release.
Only one other case of plague, in a rodent, has been found this year in El Paso County, according to CDPHE data.
“We are so sad for the loss of this young Coloradan and our deepest condolences go to the family,” said Jennifer House, state public health veterinarian for CDPHE. “Public health is doing an epidemiological investigation and wants Coloradans to know that while this disease is very rare, it does occur sometimes, and to seek medical care if you have symptoms.”
The Mitchell family declined to comment Monday.
“She had a most beautiful smile and was so very sweet!” reads a letter signed by the 4-H Weaselskin Club leaders, Mike and Rachael Latham.
Social media posts expressed prayers and condolences for the family.
The CDPHE and SJBPH continue to investigate the case and will provide additional information as it becomes available, according to the SJBPH release.
SJBPH said the death was “associated with” the plague because the public health agency does not make cause of death determinations.
As of Monday, the official cause of death was pending, said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith. It could be the bubonic plague or the pneumonic plague, she said.
“We’re just waiting to confirm, so we can finalize the death certificate,” Smith said.
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 usually develops from the bite of an infected flea and is known for killing millions in Europe during the Middle Ages. The septicemic plague can occur from untreated bubonic plague, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The pneumonic plague develops from inhaling infectious droplets or from untreated bubonic plague after it spreads to the lungs.
Symptoms of plague include fever, headache, chills, extreme weakness, painful lymph nodes, abdominal pain, bleeding into the skin and blackened skin or tissue.
Modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague, but without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death, according to the CDC.
Plague is frequently detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, woodrats, and other species of ground squirrels and chipmunks, according to SJBPH.
Health officials do not yet know how Mitchell contracted the infection, Smith said.
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.
SJBPH recommended controlling the presence of wildlife and fleas around homes as well as wearing repellent and appropriate clothing when heading outdoors.
Pets should be kept up to date on vaccinations and protected from fleas. People should avoid sleeping alongside pets, feeding wild animals and handling animal waste.
It is important that children are also aware of the precautions and know to tell an adult if they have had contact with a wild animal, the public health agency 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.