The Plague Is Back: How to Protect Yourself When Traveling Out West

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You don’t need to wear one of these masks. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Plague is one of the more terrifying and ominous words in the English language. The rare disease, transmitted by rodents and fleas, still exists today, and this summer has seen 11 cases in six states.

The most recent plague-related death was a Utah man in his 70s. Officials believe the plague was caused by a fleabite or contact with a dead animal.


Rodents and the fleas that live on them are often responsible for transmitting the plague to humans. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

“That’s the most common way to get it,” JoDee Baker, an epidemiologist with the Utah state department of health, told the Associated Press. “That’s probably what happened, but we’re still doing an investigation into that.”

Health department officials said the patient contracted the disease in Utah, possibly after spending time in campgrounds.

Related: 10 Ways to Stay Healthy While Flying

Also, an outbreak of bubonic plague killed 60 to 80 prairie dogs in an eastern Utah colony, and officials found prairie dog burrows near the victim’s property.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague, but “without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death.” It is important to note that there is no plague vaccine available in the United States. New plague vaccines are in development but are not expected to be commercially available in the immediate future.

Symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender, and painful lymph nodes.

Other recent plague fatalities happened after the victims visited Yosemite National Park in California.

Related: Where in the World Is It Safe to Drink the Tap Water?

There is absolutely no reason to panic, but you should always know how to protect yourself.

Here are a couple of tips for avoiding the plague on your next adventure in the western U.S.

1. Insect repellent It isn’t just for mosquitoes. Apply products containing DEET to skin and clothing.

2. Ensure your pets are wearing flea protection This is one of the most important tips, and it ensures that you won’t bring the plague home with you. Fleas can live in your pet’s fur for months and infect you long after your vacation is over.

3. Wear gloves when handling wild animals If you have to handle wild animals, dead or alive, make sure to wear thick gloves.

4. Thoroughly cook all wild game Make sure to cook wild game all the way through, ensuring that no sections of the meat remain pink.


Everything about doing this is a terrible idea. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

5. Don’t touch the prairie dogs There are plenty of places in the western United States that encourage you to feed and pet the wild prairie dogs. Handling any wild animal isn’t a good idea, and for now it is probably best to keep your hands to yourself.

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