California Campground Squirrel Tests Positive for Plague

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The Los Alamos Campground in the Angeles National Forest was shut down this weekend after a captured squirrel tested positive for plague, a bacterial disease in wild rodents that can be transmitted to humans. The squirrel was captured two weeks ago in the camp, which is located between Gorman and Pyramid Lake.

The campground will remain closed for at least ten days and squirrel burrows will be tested by public health officials.

There is no human infection reported. Jonathan Fielding, the county’s public health director, says, “We’re fortunate to have caught this. This case now is about prevention.”

Plague is caused by the organism Yershinia pestis, which is spread by rodents such as rats, rabbits, prairie dogs, and squirrels. It is transmitted to humans when they are bitten by a flea that carries the bacteria from the infected animal. The three most common forms of plague are bubonic (infection of the lymph nodes), pneumonic (infection of the lungs), and septicemic (infection of the blood.

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The time between being infected and developing symptoms is typically 2 to 10 days. Symptoms appear suddenly and include chills, high fever, muscle pain, severe headache, seizures and malaise. Smooth painful lymph gland swelling, called a bubo, is commonly found in the groin, but may occur in the armpits or neck.

People with the plague need immediate treatment. If antibiotics such as streptomycin, gentamicin, doxycycline, or ciprofloxacin are not received within 24 hours of when the first symptoms occur, the death rate is about 50-90%.

Today, plague is rare in the United States, but has been known to occur in parts of California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. Fielding says, “It is important for the public to know that there have only been four cases of human plague in Los Angeles County since 1984, none of which are fatal.”

Visitors to Los Alamos Campground are advised to avoid squirrels and chipmunks and stay clear of animal burrows, which can be hot spots for fleas. "Protection with an insect repellant containing DEET is also recommended for persons visiting the Angeles National Forest and engaging in outside recreational activities in other areas of L.A. County," Fielding said.

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