Utahn dies from plague, first local case since 2009

Posted at 8:58 AM, Aug 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-27 20:23:31-04

SALT LAKE CITY - Health officials have confirmed a Utah resident has died from plague making them the first Utahn to be diagnosed with the disease since 2009.

Health Department officials are not releasing the person's identity or where they may have contracted the disease at this time.

Officials said the plague is a rare, life-threatening, flea-borne illness.

Species such as prairie dogs, black footed-ferrets, squirrels, and rabbits are especially susceptible and usually die from it.

According to the Utah Department of Health, the plague is naturally occurring in Utah and typically seen in prairie dogs each year.

Since April 1, 2015, a total of 12 cases of human plague have been reported in residents of seven states: Arizona (two), California (one), Colorado (four), Georgia (one), New Mexico (two), Oregon (one), and Utah (one).

The two cases in Georgia and the California resident have been linked to exposures at or near Yosemite National Park.

Authorities are investigating the circumstances of the Utahn's illness.

Officials said they may have contracted the disease from a flea or contact a dead animal.

Public health officials said they don't believe the Utahn traveled anywhere else where plague is common.

Human plague occurs in areas where the bacteria are present in wild rodent populations.

The risks are generally highest in rural and semi-rural areas, including campsites and homes that provide food and shelter for various ground squirrels, chipmunks and wood rats, or other areas where you may encounter rodents.

The health department said the plague is a very serious illness but it is treatable with commonly available antibiotics.

The earlier a patient seeks medical care and receives treatment that is appropriate for plague, the better the chance for a full recovery.

Some common symptoms may include fever, headache, chills, and weakness. If you are experiencing symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

To protect you, your family, and your pets:

  • Reduce rodent habitat around your home, work place, and recreational areas. Remove brush, rock piles, junk, cluttered firewood, and possible rodent food supplies, such as pet and wild animal food. Make your home and outbuildings rodent-proof.
  • Always wear gloves if you are handling or skinning wild animals to prevent contact between your skin and potential plague bacteria. Contact your local health department if you have questions about disposal of dead animals.
  • Use repellent if you think you could be exposed to rodent fleas during activities such as camping, hiking, or working outdoors. Products containing DEET can be applied to the skin as well as clothing and products containing permethrin can be applied to clothing (always follow instructions on the label).
  • Keep fleas off of your pets by regularly applying flea control products. Animals that roam freely are more likely to come in contact with plague-infected animals or fleas and could bring them into homes. Keep pets away from wild animals.  If your pet becomes sick, seek care from a veterinarian as soon as possible.
  • Do not allow dogs or cats that roam free outside to sleep on your bed.
  • Cook all wild game meat properly to a minimum of 165°F inner temperature.
  • Clean and disinfect all knives and equipment used to process wild game.
  • Do not feed raw game meat or inner organs to pets.

The Utah DWR said residents concerned about skunks and other rodents can do several things to keep animals away from their yards and deal with animals already there.

Click here for more information and tips from Wild Aware Utah.

The Utah DWR lists a few private contractors who will remove animals from your property here.