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Plague Kills in New Mexico, Colorado

The plague lives in fleas which can reach humans through rodents and the family pet. Credit: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
The plague lives in fleas which can reach humans through rodents and the family pet. Credit: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
August 18, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. – The plague, which has killed one person in New Mexico and two in Colorado this summer, is now the cause of a campground closure in California's Yosemite National Park.

Park officials took the action after two squirrels in the area died from the plague. Dr. Joan Baumbach, an epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health, says the disease lives in fleas which can reach humans through rodents and the family pet.

"Most humans acquire it through the bites of infected fleas which can be carried into the home by their pets or dogs," she says. "Or they may be outside around their houses and woodpiles or burrows, where the rodents are, such as rock squirrels."

Baumbach says the disease, which killed a 52-year-old woman from Santa Fe County last month, is descended from the plague known as the "Black Death," which killed millions in previous centuries. The disease is rare in the United States. According to the CDC there are fewer than 20 human plague cases reported in the U.S. each year.

According to Baumbach, the majority of plague infections are found in rural areas of New Mexico and other Western states. She adds that people living amid plague-carrying fleas should take all measures to avoid contact.

"You really have to pay attention," she says. "You have to think about your woodpiles, you have to think about abandoned cars. You have to think about even your cat and dog and water and food that's out. Anything that might bring rodents in."

Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, weakness, and a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas. Baumbach says people who get the plague can survive if they get medical treatment soon after infection.

Lori Abbott/Troy Wilde, Public News Service - NM