A Crook Countygirl is believed to have acquired bubonic plague from a flea bite during a hunting trip near Heppner in Morrow County, according to the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division and Crook County Public Health Department.
The girl reportedly fell ill on Oct. 21, five days after the hunting trip started. She was hospitalized in Bend on Oct. 24 and is recovering in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Oregon Public Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologists are working with health officials in Crook, Deschutes and Morrow counties to investigate the illness. No other persons are believed to have been infected.
Plague is an infectious bacterial disease that is carried by squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents and their fleas. When an infected rodent becomes sick and dies, its fleas can pass the infection to humans and other warm-blooded animals through their bites.
“Many people think of the plague as a disease of the past, but it’s still very much present in our environment, particularly among wildlife,” said Emilio DeBess, state public health veterinarian in the Public Health Division’s Acute and Communicable Disease Prevention Section. “Fortunately, plague remains a rare disease, but people need to take appropriate precautions with wildlife and their pets to keep it that way.”
DeBess recommends people avoid any contact with wild rodents. They should never feed squirrels, chipmunks or other rodents in picnic or campground areas, and never touch sick or dead rodents. Pets also should be protected from fleas and kept away from wild animals.
Plague is rare in Oregon and is treatable with antibiotics if caught early. Only eight human cases have been diagnosed in the state since 1995, and no deaths have been reported.
Plague symptoms typically develop in one to four days after exposure and include fever, chills, headache, weakness, and a bloody or watery cough. There are three types of plague: bubonic, a lymph node infection; septicemic, a blood infection; and pneumonic, a lung infection. Bubonic plague is the most common form and is characterized by high fever, lethargy and swollen lymph nodes, most commonly in the neck and under the jaw. Infected lymph nodes may spontaneously abscess and drain.
In general, people displaying any flu-like symptoms should stay home from school or work to avoid unnecessarily exposing others to their illnesses. People should contact their health care provider if plague is suspected and a veterinarian if pets or other animals exhibit symptoms consistent with the disease. 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.
Julia Burco, a veterinarian with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, advises people who find or observe sick or dead rodents to call the agency’s veterinarians at 1-866-968-2600.