image of flea through microscope
August 15, 2017

Bubonic plague-carrying fleas found in parts of northern Arizona

Fleas in some parts of northern Arizona have tested positive for the bubonic plague, a now-rare disease believed to have been responsible for millions of deaths during the Middle Ages, health officials confirmed to ABC News, Newsweek and other media outlets over the past week.

The infected parasites were first detected in Coconino County and have since also been found in Navajo County, according to published reports. While the insects have indeed tested positive for Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes the plague, thus far, no illnesses have been reported.

In a statement, the Navajo County Health Department said that it was “urging the public to take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to this serious disease, which can be present in fleas, rodents, rabbits and predators that feed upon these animals.” They added that the illness “can be transmitted to humans and other animals by the bite of an infected flea.”

Humans can also catch the disease through bodily fluids (such as respiratory droplets), as well as through direct contact with infected animals (including handling tissues or fluids from a creature that has contracted the disease), Newsweek noted. People living, working or visiting the affected areas are also advised to keep their pets from roaming free, ABC News added.

Disease is rare, but US-cases are not unprecedented, say experts

While such reports of plague-infected fleas are likely alarming, in actuality, they are nothing new for people living in the western US. According to NPR, three New Mexico people tested positive for the plague earlier this summer, and four individuals from that state were infected in 2016.

“Western parts of the United States have had ongoing plague transmission in rodents for over a century,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a member of the public health committee member at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a senior associate at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Newsweek.

Despite the plague’s lethal past, modern-day antibiotics are usually enough to ensure that anyone who becomes infected will make a full recovery, NPR said. Nonetheless, Dr. Adalja noted that it was important for folks to be careful “when dealing with rodents and clear areas of their property that may be attractive to rodents.” Likewise, he said, it is important for doctors to be able to spot symptoms of the disease, and to be aware of diagnostic and treatment methods.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between one and 17 cases of the plague are detected in humans annually. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a total of 320 cases in 2015, including 77 that proved fatal. Roughly 300 people are infected by the plague worldwide each year, Newsweek said, citing WHO statistics.

“Studies suggest that outbreaks of the plague occasionally occur in southwestern US states like Arizona during cooler summers that follow wet winters,” ABC News noted. “Symptoms of plague include sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes, according to the CDC. If untreated, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body,” and could potentially be fatal.

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Image credit: CDC