The Black Death: First case of bubonic plague found in US in a squirrel

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The first case of bubonic plague was found in the US Saturday, with a squirrel testing positive for the plague in Colorado.

The bubonic plague, popularly known for the Black Death that spread through Europe in the mid-14th century, is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis and can be spread to humans via animals if precautions are not taken.

The public health authority for Jefferson County in Colorado, the site of the detected case, warned that humans could be infected with plague through infected flea bites, through a cough from an infected animal, or through direct contact with the blood tissue of infected animals.

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Household pets are also under threat, with cats particularly susceptible, the health authority said.

“Cats are highly susceptible to plague and may die if not treated promptly with antibiotics. Cats can contract plague from flea bites, a rodent scratch/bite or ingestion of a rodent. Dogs are not as susceptible to plague; however, they may pick up and carry plague-infected rodent fleas,” the authority said.

Owners who suspect that their pets may have caught the plague should visit a veterinarian, while those whose pets live close to wild animal populations should consult a veterinarian on how to prevent fleas to help prevent the spread of the virus, the authority added.

Pet owners who suspect their pets are ill should consult a veterinarian. All pet owners who live close to wild animal populations, such as prairie dog colonies or other known wildlife habitats, should consult their veterinarian about flea control for their pets to help prevent the transfer of fleas to humans.

“Symptoms of plague may include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, nausea and extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes, occurring within two to seven days after exposure. Plague can be effectively treated with antibiotics when diagnosed early. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should consult a physician,” the authority said.

The public health authority issued a variety of precautions to protect people and pets from the plague, adding that the risk of contracting plague is low if guidelines are followed.

1. Remove sources of food, shelter and access for wild animals.
2. Do not feed wild animals.
3. Remove trash from gardens to limit wild animals from visiting.
4. Avoid contact with sick and dead wild animals and rodents.
5. Exercise precaution when handling a sick pet and visit a veterinarian.
6. Visit a veterinarian about flea and tick control for pets.
7. Avoid allowing pets to roam free where they may potentially have an encounter with an infected wild animal and bring the disease home.

Cases of bubonic plague have also been reported in China earlier this month. In response, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that it is monitoring the situation and is on hand to help authorities should it be necessary.

“Bubonic plague has been with us and is always with us, for centuries … Plague is rare, typically found in selected geographical areas across the globe where it is still endemic,” the WHO said.

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