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Prairie Dogs Harbinger for Plague in Northern Arizona

Prairie Dogs Harbinger for Plague in Northern Arizona

When prairie dog colonies disappear suddenly, often the bubonic plague is not far behind.  That is what happened this spring, and the reason public health officials remain vigilant in this part of the state.  Transmission of plague occurs through fleas, but can also come about with contact from infected animals.

Plague is rare in the modern world, largely due to effective treatments (antibiotics) and public health workers who are trained to spot signs of an outbreak.  Only about ten percent of those stricken die from the disease worldwide, and confirmed cases in the last century number only 1,000 individuals.

But northern Arizona, near the Grand Canyon, is a hotspot for the flea that carries Yersinia pestis bacteria, a key vector and pathogen for bubonic plague.  Officials respond to outbreaks among other mammals – commonly rodents – by dusting burrows with disinfectant.   Warning signs are also posted in hiking areas where rodent colonies have died.

Safeguards for hikers include using bug repellant and avoidance of any dead animal.  Plague can be transmitted to humans via flea bites or contact with animals that have died from the disease.

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