Health officials: Utah resident dies from plague

Associated Press

Salt Lake City — An elderly Utah resident has died after contracting the plague earlier this month, health officials said Thursday, noting it’s the state’s first recorded death from the disease in over three decades.

State and local officials are still trying to determine how the person contracted the disease but believe it might have been spread by a flea or contact with a dead animal, according to the Utah Department of Health.

“That’s the most common way to get it,” said JoDee Baker, an epidemiologist with the department. “That’s probably what happened, but we’re still doing an investigation into that.”

Health officials declined to release the patient’s gender, age or hometown, saying the person’s family wanted to keep those details private.

Plague is a rare illness that is carried by rodents and spread by fleas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 11 other cases of the disease have been reported in six states since April 1. Three people — aged 16, 52 and 79 — died.

The last human case in Utah was in 2009, but health department spokeswoman Charla Haley said no death from plague has been recorded in the state in at least 35 years.

Patients in a few of the 11 other cases this year came down with the plague after visiting Yosemite National Park in California.

Haley said the latest patient got the disease in Utah, possibly after being in rural areas and near campgrounds. The person was hospitalized about five days after coming down with symptoms, and died in mid-August at the University of Utah’s Hospital.

Health officials checked with family members who may have been exposed to the person, but Baker said the incubation period has passed and no family members or anyone else reported symptoms.

Plague is naturally occurring in Utah rodents and is often seen in prairie dog populations, the Department of Health said. Wildlife and health officials confirmed in July that an outbreak of bubonic plague killed 60 to 80 prairie dogs in an eastern Utah colony.

Human cases of plague often occur in areas where wild rodent populations are near campsites and homes. Transmission between people is rare.

If caught early in humans, the illness can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills and weakness.

Baker said anyone going to rural areas or campgrounds can protect themselves by wearing insect repellent; thoroughly cooking any wild game and sanitizing knives and preparation tools; wearing gloves when handling or skinning wild animals; and ensuring pets are wearing flea collars.