Officials Find Plague in California Squirrel

Jul 30, 2013 | Naomi Nkinsi | Outbreak News

Table Mountain campgrounds at Angeles National Forest closed on July 24 after officials found plague bacteria in a squirrel in the area, according to a Los Angeles County public health press release. The squirrel tested positive for the infectious disease on July 23 during routine surveillance activities. Officials have stated that the parks will remain closed until further tests of squirrels are conducted and the fleas removed.

Perhaps the most well-known plague was the “Black Death” of the 14th century. However, as CDC points out, there have been a few other significant plagues that don’t receive as much fanfare. The first recorded plague was the Justinian plague, named after Byzantine emperor Justinian, around 540 A.D. Following that plague was the Black Death – the plague that tore across China to Europe via trade routes, killing nearly two thirds of Europe’s population. More recently, a plague began in China in the 1860s and over the next few decades killed around 10 million people.

The plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and is transmitted to humans by flea bites, bodily fluids of infected animals, or contaminated air droplets. Yersinia pestis is very scarce in the United States today. According to the CDC, the plague was first introduced into the United States in 1900 by rat-infested steamships from Asia; resulting in epidemics in port cities. The last urban plague epidemic since then occurred in Los Angeles from 1924 to 1925, but the disease has become entrenched in many areas of rural western United States. The CDC also states that most human cases in the United States occur in two regions: northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado as well as California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada.

There are three forms of the plague: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic; and symptoms depend on the form. Bubonic plague means that the bacteria are replicating in the lymph nodes (lymph nodes are found throughout the body and are key to the immune system: they store the white blood cells that fight off pathogens). With the bubonic plague, individuals can develop a sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, weakness, and swelling on the lymph nodes (called buboes). Those with septicemic plague have bacteria replicating in the bloodstream. Symptoms of septicemic plague include fever, chills, extreme weakness and bleeding into the skin and other organs. Skin, especially on the fingers, toes, and nose may turn black. Septicemic plague can occur as a result of untreated bubonic plague. If a plague is pneumonic, the bacteria are affecting the lungs and cause pneumonia. Symptoms include weakness and rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain and bloody mucous. This form of the plague may develop if bubonic or septicemic plague is left untreated. In the United States, bubonic plague is the most common form of the disease. More information on signs and symptoms can be found on the CDC’s Plague website. The CDC strongly highlights that the plague is a serious disease that requires immediate medical attention to prevent complications or death.

Though the plague is a very serious illness, it is treatable with common antibiotics, such as streptomycin. A plague vaccine is no longer available in the United States and new vaccines in development are not expected to be commercially available in the immediate future. To prevent the plague, the CDC recommends removing brush, rock, cluttered firewood and animal food around your home to keep rodents away. Always be sure to wear gloves if handling potentially infected animals and use repelling to keep away fleas during activities such as camping or hiking. Also be sure to keep pets free of fleas by applying flea control products. Do not allow dogs or cats that roam free in plague endemic areas to sleep in your bed. 

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