|By David McNew,
So far, 13
squirrels have been found dead in or near Denver's City Park
but officials say transfer of the bubonic plague to humans is
By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY
DENVER — A rash of squirrel deaths from plague in
the middle of Colorado's largest city has heightened surveillance for the
deadly but curable disease.
No humans here have been infected with plague, the
"Black Death" disease that killed millions in 14th-century Europe. A state
hotline gets 50-75 calls daily about dead rodents. Chris Urbina, Denver's
health director, says the risk of catching it "is extremely low."
One human case has been reported in the USA this
year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A
49-year-old man in San Juan County, N.M., was hospitalized last week and
is recovering. A flu-like illness that occurs most often in lymph nodes or
the blood, plague is treatable with antibiotics.
Denver's last outbreak in rodents was nearly 40 years
ago. So far, 13 squirrels have been found dead in or near City Park, an
urban playground 2 miles from the state Capitol. Two infected squirrels
and an infected rabbit were found dead in Denver suburbs.
Plague bacteria are carried by fleas that infect wild
rodents, rabbits and cats, usually in rural areas. Plague reached the USA
in the 19th century in rats on ships. It exists today only in the West,
mainly in four states: New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California.
Infected fleas can jump onto animals or humans.
Coyotes, foxes and birds that feed on an infected carcass can transport
the fleas but are resistant to plague.
John Pape, an epidemiologist for the Colorado
Department of Public Health and Environment, suspects that is how it got
into town. He says the Denver occurrence is not an "outbreak" but warrants
tracking. City workers this week caught 17 squirrels for testing.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases reports 10-20 people a year catch plague in the USA. On average,
one in seven dies.
"We're always on watch," says Deborah Busemeyer of
the New Mexico Department of Health. The state had an above-normal year in
2006: Eight cases and three deaths. Pape says plague is more common in New
Mexico than Colorado, where the last death was in 2004, one of three
infections that year.
Plague season runs from April to November during
periods of moisture and moderate temperature.
Among pets, dogs are resistant but cats are highly
"Right now is a good time to keep cats inside," says
Diane Milholin, a Denver health inspector. "Your dog is not going to get
sick from a flea, but if the flea stays on the dog and decides to bite
you, you could get sick."