Plague Bacteria Discovered in Arizona Counties. What Health Officials are Saying and How to be Prepared.
6 Sep, 2017By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Still Around, Even After the Middle Ages, Flea-Borne Illness Causing Problems for Health Officials
While a hurricane was washing over portions of Texas, a very different problem was spreading in the desert climate of Arizona. And when folks started hearing about it, it was cause for a huge double-take. The problem: plague. And yes, sports event owners need to know about it.
You probably read about plague in your high school World History class, where it was referred to in the Middle Ages as the Black Death: a flea-borne illness that was transmissible to humans, and which back in those times, wiped out millions of people.
According to an article in The Washington Post, public health officials in two Arizona counties, Navajo and Coconino, are currently warning residents about the discovery of plague bacteria. Fleas carrying Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, were discovered last month and pose a potentially grave threat to people and their pets, especially cats. Several people have been hospitalized and doctors are trying to spread information about symptoms.
The disease is spread when infected fleas bite rabbits, prairie dogs or various rodents — and anything that may eat them — and transfer the disease to pets, who in turn can infect humans. Cats who get plague transmit it through their cough. Dogs typically carry the fleas on their fur. The more time a pet spends outside, the more likely it is to acquire diseased fleas.
Unlike the Middle Ages, plague can be treated in the here and now with antibiotics if detected early, but the symptoms can grow deadly serious very quickly. There are three forms of the disease. Bubonic plague is perhaps the best known, but septicemic plague and pneumonic plague are equally serious. (The good news: fatal human cases are rare these days, but the disease is still considered very serious, more so to individuals whose health is compromised by any other illness.) Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico experience the highest concentration of cases, though since the 1970s, plague has appeared in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of western Texas.)
So now that plague has been identified, what can event owners do to reassure athletes, parents and individuals if they have an event in an area of concern?
The bad news: There isn’t currently a vaccine against plague. The good news: Using insect repellents with DEET on skin, and permethrin on clothing, can help keep fleas at bay. Athletes, spectators and others who may be in areas where plague has been detected, or near those areas, should wear appropriate repellent and avoiding contact with roaming animals. Individuals who are traveling with pets should make sure flea protection is up to date and limit pets’ ability to roam unleashed.
While owners of indoor sports events might not have to be as concerned, those who are in charge of events held outdoors should be aware of the increased risk. In addition, rodeos, horse shows and other events where livestock is present will almost certainly have at least some rodent presence – as well as cats, dogs and more.
The Centers for Disease Control website has a section with comprehensive information on plague, including history (for those who didn’t pay attention in high school) – but more importantly, prevention and FAQs.