July 26, 2013
Plague-Infected Squirrel Leads To LA Campground Scare
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Several popular areas in the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles, California were shut down Wednesday when a squirrel there tested positive for the plague. Los Angeles County health officials and the US Forest Service shut down the Broken Blade, Twisted Arrow and Pima Loops areas around the Table Mountain campground, which is located northwest of LA.
The plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis which can be transmitted by infected fleas. The Black Death was responsible for killing an estimated 25 million Europeans in the Middle Ages, though modern medicine has been able to reduce its threat to humans. Yet while the disease isn't nearly as widespread as it was a few hundred years ago, it is not uncommon to find a few stray cases of infected animals in the wild. Los Angeles health officials want the public to know, however, that these cases are few, far between, and rarely result in human death.
"It is important for the public to know that there have only been four cases of human plague in Los Angeles County residents since 1984, none of which were fatal," explained Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the health department chief.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seven cases of the plague are reported in the US every year on average. The majority of these cases are located in the west and, though the plague is usually fatal if left untreated, antibiotics are typically able to treat the disease without major complications.
This isn't the first time the Angeles National Forest has had to deal with plague-stricken animals. In 2007 a single squirrel tested positive for the disease, sending health officials to shut down the Stoneyvale Picnic Area north of La Canada Flintridge. This squirrel was also found during normal disease monitoring.
The area was closed for 10 days while workers dusted for fleas and visitors were cautioned against coming in contact with wild animals which may carry fleas. During this 2007 incident Dr. Fielding also stressed that there had only been four fatalities due to the plague since 1984.
Three more squirrels tested positive for the plague in the 90s, one in 1995 and two in 1996.
Last year a seven year-old girl from Colorado survived the bubonic plague after coming in contact with an infected dead squirrel. The girl, Sierra Jane, had gone camping with her parents and came across a dead squirrel in the forest. She asked her parents to give the animal a proper burial. It is believed she came in contact with the infected fleas when she handled the carcass. She then became sick with what her parents thought was the flu. After having a seizure, however, her parents rushed her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with the bubonic plague.
Though highly infectious and potentially deadly, the plague can be treated if detected early. Health officials recommend using an insect repellant which contains DEET when venturing out into the forest to protect against fleas and other disease-ridden insects.