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Plague Confirmed in Crook County Resident

Tests have confirmed that a Crook County resident has been sickened by Yersinia pestis bacteria (plague). State Public Health Veterinarian Emilio DeBess went to Prineville to conduct an investigation. He has collected blood samples from the man's pets, neighbors' pets, and animals in the local animal shelter to determine if plague exists in other animals in the area. The disease is carried by fleas, which can infect animals or humans.

The individual is being hospitalized. Contacts of this individual have been notified and are receiving preventive antibiotics. Plague cases are rare in Oregon. It is spread to humans or animals through a bite from an infected flea or by contact with an animal sick with the disease. According to a news report, the man was trying to take a mouse out of a stray cat's mouth and was potentially bitten by either the mouse or the cat. The cat has died and its body was sent to the CDC for testing.

Five people in Oregon -- including the man currently in the hospital -- have been sickened by the plague since 1995. In the four preceding cases, the patients recovered. A domestic cat in Crook County tested positive for bubonic plague a year ago.

People can protect themselves, their family members and their pets by using flea treatments on your pets to prevent them from bringing fleas into your home. Plague is serious but it is treatable with antibiotics if caught early.

Symptoms of plague typically develop within one to four days after exposure and include fever, chills, headache, weakness and a bloody or watery cough due to infection. Three clinical syndromes have been described; bubonic (lymph node infection), septicemic (blood infection), and pneumonic (lung infection).   Bubonic plague is the most common form and is characterized by high temperatures, lethargy and swollen lymph nodes, most commonly in the neck and under the jaw. Infected lymph nodes may spontaneously abscess and drain. 

People should contact their health care provider if plague is suspected and a veterinarian if pets or other animals exhibit symptoms consistent with the plague.  Early treatment for pets and people with appropriate antibiotics is essential to curing plague infections. Untreated plague can be fatal for animals and people. Antibiotics to prevent or treat plague should be used only under the direction of a health care provider.

Plague can be passed from fleas feeding on infected wild mammals to pets such as cats and to their human owners. "To protect your pets, avoid allowing them access to areas with fleas or to other pets carrying fleas, and treat your pets for fleas to help prevent this disease," Yeargain said. "Call your local veterinarians for assistance in which products are safe for use in pets, because some treatments may be toxic to your pet."

Some additional steps to prevent flea bites are to wear insect repellant, tuck pant cuffs into socks when in areas heavily occupied by rodents, and avoid contact with wildlife including rodents. Pet owners are encouraged to keep cats indoors. Also, do not handle ill-appearing stray or wild animals.

Health authorities offer the following recommendations to prevent plague:

  • Avoid sick or dead rodents, rabbits and squirrels, and their nests and burrows.
  • Keep your pets from roaming and hunting.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on your pets.
  • Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles.
  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.
  • See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.
  • Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home.
  • Don’t leave your pet’s food and water where mice can get to it.
  • Veterinarians and their staff are at higher risk and should take precautions when seeing suspect animal plague cases.

Source: Crook County, State Public Health Veterinarian, news reports