New Mexico Confirms Human Plague Case

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The New Mexico Department of Health confirmed the fourth human case of plague in New Mexico this year. An 83-year-old woman from Sandoval County was hospitalized and is back home recovering. The Department of Health is educating neighbors about plague in the area and conducting an environmental investigation at the woman’s residence to determine if there is any ongoing risk to people.

The Department also confirmed a plague case in a rock squirrel from the east side of the City of Santa Fe and from a dog several miles south of the state penitentiary near Route 14. Earlier this month the Department reported three cases from Santa Fe County: an 8-year-old boy who died, his 10-year-old sister who recovered and a 56-year-old man who also recovered.

“Plague activity is usually higher in the late spring and summer months so people need to take precautions to avoid rodents and their fleas, which can expose them to plague,” said Dr. Paul Ettestad, public health veterinarian at the Department of Health. “Dead rodents should either be buried in the ground using a long shovel or double bagged and thrown away in the garbage if that is allowed in your area. This will help keep pets and children from handling rodent carcasses and potentially being exposed to plague.”

“Whenever there is a human case of plague the Department takes several steps to ensure the safety of the immediate family, neighbors, and health care providers,” said State Epidemiologist Mack Sewell, PhD. “We inform neighbors door-to-door about plague found in the area and educate them on reducing their risk. We determine whether individuals close to the patient may also have been exposed to the plague and recommend preventative treatment when necessary.”

The Department’s investigation also includes:

* Alerting physicians and veterinarians that plague is in the area, making sure they contact the Department of Health if they have a suspect case of plague, and offering the services of the Department’s Scientific Laboratory if they need to test for a suspect case of plague in either humans or animals.

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* Conducting an environmental investigation at the most likely place of exposure, looking for signs of a plague die-off in rodents, infected fleas in nearby rodent burrows, or evidence of recent intrusion by rodents or fleas into the home, either through holes in the walls or by the family dog or cat.

Plague, a bacterial disease of rodents, is generally transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but can also be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets. Most people become ill two to seven days after being infected with the plague bacteria.

Symptoms of bubonic plague in humans include fever, painful swollen lymph nodes in the groin, armpit or neck areas, chills, and sometimes headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. Septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria gets into the bloodstream and can present with high fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Pneumonic plague occurs when the bacteria gets into the lungs and can include severe cough, difficulty breathing and bloody sputum. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced.

To prevent cases of plague, the Department of Health recommends:

* Avoid sick or dead rodents.
* Teach children not to play near rodent nests or burrows.
* Treat pets regularly with an effective flea control product.
* Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live.
* Keep pets from roaming and hunting.
* Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.

Symptoms in cats and dogs are similar to humans. Fever, lethargy, not eating, and swollen lymph nodes (usually in the neck area) are the most common signs.

There was one human case of plague in 2008 in an Eddy County man. There were five human cases of plague in Bernalillo, San Juan, Santa Fe and Torrance counties in 2007 with one fatality. Eight human plague cases occurred in New Mexico in 2006 with three fatalities.

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