Bubonic Plague Caught Just In Time, Young Girl Survives Ordeal
September 6, 2012

Bubonic Plague Caught Just In Time, Young Girl Survives Ordeal

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A seven-year-old girl from Pagosa Springs, Colorado has survived the bubonic plague after a two week fight at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke´s.

The is the first confirmed case in the state of Colorado in more than six years. The girl picked up the infection during a picnic at a Colorado campground when she asked her parents to give a half-eaten squirrel carcass a proper burial. Apparently fleas from the remains jumped onto a sweater worn by the girl, and then got onto her skin, administering a dose of the deadly bacteria through their bites.

The parents of Sierra Jane, 7, said they first thought she was coming down with a case of the flu. But after the young girl had a seizure, her father knew something was seriously wrong and rushed her to the hospital in their hometown. Doctors who saw the girl were baffled by the cause of the infection, which left Sierra with a temperature of 107 degrees, a temperature that is deadly in its own right.

"I didn't know what was going on. I just reacted," Sean Downing said. "I thought she died."

Sensing the girl was in dire trouble, the head doctor called other hospitals around the state looking for help in a diagnosis for the odd combination of symptoms. They found an answer when reaching Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children´s Dr. Jennifer Snow.

Snow, who was on call at the hospital, urged for the girl´s transport to the Denver hospital. Then she started searching for a diagnosis.

Taking the evidence into account--septic shock, seizures, high temperature, swollen lymph nodes and an encounter with a dead squirrel--Snow researched an online database of several journals and was able to find an answer within minutes.

She found a similar case of a teenager with the same symptoms in the periodical “Chest.” That case was labeled bubonic plague. Snow consulted with colleagues and ordered for an antibiotic that is known to fight the plague. She also alerted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has plague experts in Colorado.

Luckily, with fast-thinking on the father´s part to get Sierra Jane to a hospital, knowledge of doctors to seek professional advice and a childcare specialist´s work to find an answer, a 7-year-old lives to tell her tale.

Darcy Downing, Sierra Jane´s mother, said she was grateful with the diagnosis. Most mothers would have been terrified, but Darcy said it was good that there was an answer for what she had, and that there was medicine to fight it off.

Sierra Jane began to recover, and after two weeks, she is set to be released with a clean bill of health. She still looks exhausted from her fight for life, and must be annoyed by the two IV lines running through her neck.

Snow said if Sierra Jane had stayed home, it is likely she would have “died within 24 to 48 hours from the shock of infection.”

Health experts on the local, state and federal level consulted and issued a report stating there has been no unusual animal die-off or other concerns. They still posted reminders at the campground about avoiding animals and wearing bug spray, but made it clear that a small, background level of plague in wild animals is typical in Colorado.

Sierra Jane and her mother now want to put together a Girl Scout unit on diseases in the wilderness, and how to handle animal encounters, rather they be dead or alive.

Bubonic plague is a highly-infectious disease, one that wiped out more than 30 percent of Europe in the 14th century. While it is now largely controlled and exceedingly rare, cases still crop up from time to time. Still, this is the first Colorado case since 2006. The plague can be treated if it is caught early enough; in Sierra Jane´s case it was caught just in the nick of time.

Federal health officials said they are aware of two other confirmed and one probable case of plague in the US this year, which is average for any year. The other confirmed cases were in New Mexico and Oregon. The probable case is also from Oregon.

The CDC has been on higher-than-usual-alert this year after a series of animal/insect-borne illnesses have sprung up across the country. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus has been on a record-setting pace with a high number of confirmed infections, and deadly mouse-borne hantavirus cases in Yosemite have been blamed for two deaths so far, the Associated Press reported.

Still, for the plague, this has not been an unusually bad year; it is just getting attention because of a possibly miraculous fight for survival making headlines. And a number of different factors drives the number of cases seen in any given year.

"I don't think there's a confluence of any particular set of factors" driving the recent illness reports, said Kiersten Kugeler, a CDC epidemiologist in Colorado who tracks reported cases of plague.

Colorado state public health veterinarian Elisabeth Lawaczeck said it is not clear why Colorado hasn´t seen another human case until now.