A Colorado man was diagnosed with pneumonic plague, a rare form of the disease, and is the state’s first confirmed human case of the illness in a decade.
Health officials made the announcement Wednesday, adding that the man was diagnosed after the family dog died unexpectedly. Reuters reports that a necropsy concluded the canine was afflicted with pneumonic plague. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment added that the man and his dog were believed to have contracted the disease in an eastern Colorado county.
The bacteria that causes the plague, Yersinia pestis, occurs naturally in the western United States, particularly Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The plague is transmitted by fleas to rodents, normally prairie dogs. When the fleas’ host dies, the disease is spread when the insects find another host.
Yersinia pestis causes bubonic plague as well, but pneumonic is the more rare, more serious form of the disease. It affects a person’s lungs and symptoms typically include fever, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pains, and a cough.
Colorado health officials added that it is also the only form of plague that can be transmitted from person to person, normally through coughing or sneezing. 9-News Health Reporter Dr. John Torres explained to the station, “Pneumonic plague gets into the lungs. It’s a type of pneumonia. It can be spread from person to person, and that’s what makes it kind of scary and kind of dangerous.”
The unidentified Colorado man is one of 60 known human cases of pneumonic plague in the state since 1957. Of those infected, nine were fatal. Dr. Torres added, “Pneumonic plague is not very common at all. The problem is without treatment pneumonic plague is about 90 percent fatal. In other words, most of the people who get it are going to die from it without treatment. Treatment is simple antibiotics, but you have to get those antibiotics.”
To avoid plague exposure, a health expert recommended that people should not directly handle dead rodents, keep pets away from wildlife, don’t let dogs or cats hunt rodents or roam freely, treat all pets for fleas, and do not feed rodents, as it attracts them to your property and brings them in close contact with other rodents. This increases the risk of disease transmission.
Colorado health officials added, “Although human cases occur infrequently, plague is severe and potentially life-threatening if not detected and quickly treated with common antibiotics.” The status of the Colorado man infected with plague is not known.
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