LEUPP—Rodent die-offs have alerted tribal and county health officials on the western edges of the Hopi and Navajo country to a resurgence of plague in our region.
"We try to monitor several test areas, but an increase in prairie-dog deaths at higher elevations indicates that the plague is on the move," Coconino County Health official Mark Frank explained.
The plague Frank referred to is the Bubonic Plague, a bacillus bacteria endemic to Central Asia and the high country of New Mexico and northern Arizona. In 13th century Europe, rat-infested ships from the Crimea carried plague to Italy and infected the European continent. Fleas infected with the disease infect rats and other rodents, and when the rodent hosts die, the fleas seek other mammals. When a person is bitten by an infected flea, they are exposed to plague bacteria.
"We know that plague is endemic to our region in elevations above 5,000 and 6,000 feet," Frank said. "We are not quite sure how it got here. We think that when the Europeans came, they brought the Norwegian rat with them, and the fleas on the rats brought plague to the Four Corners, but we are not totally sure that is how it arrived here."
Frank said that health officials monitor sites throughout the high country for plague activity. "We use prairie dogs as an indicator, because they are noticeable," Frank explained. "They are cute, they live in communities, they stand up on their mounds, people see them. People also notice when prairie dog towns become deserted and the little creatures are gone. That is when we get concerned about plague die-offs."
Frank said recent die-offs alerted health teams to a plague resurgence. "A number of areas in northern Arizona have been tested and we are awaiting results from the Center or Disease Control facilities in Colorado. So far, plague has been detected near Woody Mountain and Wing Mountain; people should be careful."
Frank said that while plague is frightening, it is easily treatable with antibiotics through early detection, and can be avoided. "If someone has been out in the field and gets a flea bite, and a few days later develops flu-like symptoms, they should go to their doctor and tell them about the flea bite and get tested for plague. Plague seems like the flu at first, but it can kill you if it isn't identified early," Frank said.
Here are some steps to take to avoid exposure to the bubonic plague:
—Don't let your pets run free and unattended. Keep them with you, preferable on a leash, or at least control them. Cats are especially susceptible to plague fleas. But both dogs and cats may be attracted to the rodents where plague fleas live.
—If your cat or dog has fleas, get flea powder or flea collars and get rid of the fleas.
—If fleas find their way into your house, call an exterminator and get rid of them
—If you are hunting and make a kill, be careful when you skin the animal. Wear surgical gloves when you skin it out, avoid contact with tissue and blood
—While outdoors, if a flea bites you and you develop cold and flu like symptoms, tell a heath care provider about the flea bite and get tested for plague bacillus.
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