A Child in the US Has the Plague

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

A child residing in Los Angeles County, California, is recovering from the plague and public health agencies are searching the wilderness for the source of the infection.

It’s the third case of plague this year in the US. The first two both happened in Colorado, and both were fatal. Last week, an adult in Pueblo County, Colorado, died of the plague, and back in June, the disease killed a Larimer County high school student.

There are about seven cases of plague in the US every year, mostly in the west, where the disease is endemic among wild mammals, especially rodents, in rural or wilderness areas. The bacteria that cause the plague spend part of their life cycle in the digestive systems of fleas that live on wild rodents, which means the plague can spread to pets, livestock, or humans if they get too close. All things considered, it’s a little surprising that more people aren’t infected.

As in other western states, plague is endemic among California’s wild rodents, especially in foothill and mountain areas, but it hasn’t infected a human in the state since 2006. California has had 42 cases of plague since 1970, of which nine were fatal.

Public health officials say that the LA county child may have been infected during family trip in mid-July to Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, and they’re investigating the parks and the surrounding area. That process most likely involves testing area wildlife for the plague. In the meantime, park authorities have posted warnings for visitors, including advice on how to protect against plague-bearing fleas.

Those plague safety tips being shared with residents of the area include avoiding wild mammals (especially rodents, no matter how cute they are) and wearing insect repellent, especially around the cuffs of trousers, where fleas are most likely to get access. People who live in an area where plague is endemic, are told to keep their pets indoors if possible, as well as treating them for fleas and ticks regularly.

The child is recovering, say officials. These days, antibiotics can fight off the plague easily in most cases; the two Colorado victims were unfortunate exceptions. And doctors say that there’s almost no danger of an outbreak in LA County: unless an infection is left untreated and finds its way into the patient’s lungs, plague isn’t directly transmissible from person to person. The last time that happened in California was in 1924. [California Department of Public Health]