Child dies of plague in Colorado; officials warn of diseased animals in multiple counties

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Health officials in Colorado on Thursday urged residents to be cautious around local wildlife after lab reports confirmed the presence of plague in animals and fleas from six counties.

The warning comes after a 10-year-old resident recently died from complications of the disease, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The state's last plague-related death was in 2015, the Denver Post reports

“We are so sad for the loss of this young Coloradan and our deepest condolences go to the family,” Dr. Jennifer House, of the health department, said of the child's death in early July. “Public Health is doing an epidemiological investigation and wants Coloradans to know that while this disease is very rare, it does occur sometimes, and to seek medical care if you have symptoms.”

Plague is a broad disease that spreads through a variety of animals, including rodents, flies and humans. The disease comes from Yersinia pestis bacteria, a bacteria which can be found all over the world. There are three forms of plague: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic.

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Colorado health officials said an uptick in plague is expected during this time of year and is not a cause of great concern if the proper precautions are taken. Two human cases of plague were reported in Colorado in the last five years, according to state public health data.

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“In Colorado, we expect to have fleas test positive for plague during the summer months,” House, who serves as deputy state epidemiologist and public health veterinarian for CDPHE, said in the press release. “Awareness and precautions can help prevent the disease in people. While it’s rare for people to contract plague, we want to make sure everyone knows the symptoms.”

Although plague can be a serious illness if left untreated, its severity can be reduced if symptoms are caught early, infectious disease expert Leonard Krilov previously told USA TODAY. Symptoms often include fever, headache, chills and swollen lymph nodes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Humans can contract plague through being bitten by infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals; pets can also catch the disease through contact with infected fleas, the press release said.

More: Colorado squirrel tests positive for bubonic plague, health officials say

While animal-borne diseases like plague are present year-round, risk of transmission tends to increase during the summer months when humans and animals are more likely to be in close contact, the press release said. The ongoing presence of plague in animals makes it difficult to eliminate the disease’s incidence within human populations, Pritish Tosh, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Mayo Clinic, previously told USA TODAY.

"When there is a zoonotic disease, or it’s coming from animals, there is a reservoir that is going to exist unless you get rid of that reservoir," Tosh said, which would require eliminating all animals that carry the disease.

The CDPHE said “most human plague cases are acquired directly from fleas.” People can reduce their risk of contracting plague by following the department’s tips to "control the presence of wildlife and fleas around [their] homes.”

Pet owners can protect themselves and their animals by keeping pets on a leash when outside and staying clear of wild rodent habitats. To avoid attracting wild rodents to the home, residents should move household plants and food items away from the outside walls of the home. A full list of tips can be found in the CDPHE press release.

Contributing: Mary Bowerman, Matthew Brown and Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado plague: Child death reported; diseased animals found