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Tue, Oct. 22

Fleas carrying Bubonic plague not foreign to Yavapai County
Be wary of rodent burrows and keep cats inside

Navajo and Coconino County officials have both confirmed that fleas in the area tested positive for plague. Plague is an infectious disease infamous for killing millions of Europeans in the Middle Ages. (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County via AP)

Navajo and Coconino County officials have both confirmed that fleas in the area tested positive for plague. Plague is an infectious disease infamous for killing millions of Europeans in the Middle Ages. (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County via AP)

Most folks might think a return of Bubonic plague is the thing of horror movies: a made-up scare conjured up from the Middle Ages when the “Black Death” killed two-thirds of the European population.

Yet it’s not. It’s here in Yavapai County, as well as many other counties across Arizona, according to health officials.

The infested fleas that feed on rodents that then bite other wildlife, or outdoor domestic animals, and humans on rare occasions, are not foreigners here.

About five years ago, the Yavapai County Community Health Services tested a cat from the outskirts of Prescott and it was positive for the plague, said Health Services Epidemiologist Steve Everett.

In 2007, a Grand Canyon wildlife biologist died of the plague after conducting an autopsy on an infected mountain lion. The biologist did not seek treatment for symptoms, and so was unable to get the antibiotics that are quite effective against the disease, Everett said.

Though the plague exists in Yavapai County, Everett is clear that there have been no identified cases of the disease in this area, and no human cases in more than 15 years. The last time there was an outbreak of plaque was two years ago in Jerome when it was found in a few outdoor cats.

“It’s very rare to see it in humans,” Everett assured.

In the last two weeks, two Arizona counties have confirmed that fleas tested in the area were positive for the plague: Coconino County and Navajo County.

Health officials, including Everett, advise people to be on the lookout for sudden deaths of various rodents, including colonies of prairie dogs, because that can signify an outbreak. In the two counties where there has been actual detection, officials will develop a treatment plan for the rodent burrows.

For cautionary purposes, Everett said he would advise those with outdoor cats to be wary if the animal was to become ill, particularly with swelling around the neck and lymph nodes. A veterinarian can detect plaque in an animal, he advised. For those who like to camp in the wilderness, be aware of rodent burrows, particularly any that appear empty, he said.

Again, though, he said it is rare that plague erupts into a public health dilemma.

“We have it. We don’t know where. It exists at a very low level in rodents, and then you’ll have a big explosion of it and it kills off rodents, and then it goes back down. It’s a cyclical thing.

A lot of the time it goes undetected because it happens in the wild. It’s rare that we find an urban/rural interface.”

Yavapai Regional Medical Center Director of Emergency Operations Robert Barth reported no cases.

So what are the odds that you, or your animals, will become a victim of the plague? From Everett’s perspective, you are more likely to win the lottery.

“Generally, there is very, very little risk,” Everett said.

For more information, contact the Health Services Department at 928-771-3121.

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