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Not just squirrels anymore: Human confirmed to have contracted the plague in Colorado

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Meg Wingerter

The Denver Post

A southwest Colorado resident was infected with plague after exposure to sick squirrels earlier this summer, the first confirmed case of the disease in humans in the state since 2015. But health officials emphasized that the public only needs to take normal precautions.

Plague, a bacterial disease that’s typically carried by fleas but also can spread through respiratory droplets, has been in Colorado since the 1940s, said Dr. Jennifer House, state public health veterinarian for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Infected wild animals have been found in Jefferson, Adams and Broomfield counties this year, though the disease can circulate in rodent communities around the state.

“While we see most plague activity during the summer, the disease can be found in rodents year-round and sometimes spills over into other wildlife species as well as domestic cats and dogs,” she said.

While the disease can be deadly if left untreated, most people recover with prompt antibiotic treatment.

There have been 21 human cases in Colorado since 2005. The person infected this summer contracted septicemic plague, a form of the disease that doesn’t spread easily, and no other cases have been found. He or she has since recovered.

All Colorado residents should avoid handling wildlife, especially squirrels, prairie dogs, rabbits and other rodents. Domestic animals like cats and dogs also can catch plague from infected wildlife, so the health department advises not allowing pets to roam or to hunt rodents.

Other precautions include:

Treating pets for fleas according to a veterinarian’s advice

Not feeding wildlife, which brings them into closer contact with people and pets

Keeping an eye on rodent populations around you. If you notice multiple dead animals, call your local health department. Don’t touch or move dead wildlife

Symptoms of plague include a sudden fever, headache, chills, weakness and pain or swelling in the lymph nodes. If you think you, another person or a pet could have been exposed, call a doctor immediately.

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