June 7, 2005
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced today that the plague-causing Yersinia pestis bacterium has been detected in several wood rats and cottontail rabbits found dead in rural locations in parts of Midland, Reagan and Upton counties this year.
DSHS is urging the public in those counties and in adjacent Andrews, Crane, Ector, Glasscock and Martin counties to take precautions against fleabites.
Plague usually is spread by fleas that have bitten an infected rodent. Infection also can occur by breathing in respiratory droplets from a live animal that has the pneumonic form of the illness. Plague can be transmitted to dogs, cats and humans. Plague in humans can be effectively treated with antibiotics if detected early.
DSHS zoonosis control specialist Kathy Parker, Midland, said it is not unusual to have plague in wild rodents in the western United States, including the western part of Texas. “Plague periodically cycles through the wild rodent population, sometimes causing large die-offs of rats, prairie dogs, squirrels and other rodents,” she said.
The last recorded human case of plague in Texas was in 1993 in a Kent County resident. An average of 13 human cases a year occur in the United States.
DSHS recently issued a plague advisory to veterinarians and physicians in West Texas and is reminding the public to take routine precautions to reduce the chances of being bitten by an infected flea. The public also is asked to report large die-offs of rodents to public health officials.
Personal precautions include removing food and shelter sources for rodents around homes, work sites and recreational areas; using safe insecticides to kill fleas around property; applying a DEET-containing repellent to exposed skin and one containing permethrin to clothing when in flea-inhabited areas, especially when camping or in other rodent-inhabited areas; and treating pets with long-acting flea control products.
DSHS also advises wearing gloves if it's necessary to handle an animal that could have plague.
Because some rodents also carry hantavirus, rodent nests in closed-in areas should be aired out before removal, and any rodent nests and droppings should be wetted-down with a 10 percent bleach-90 percent water solution before removing.
(News media: for more information contact Kathy Parker, DSHS Zoonosis Control Specialist, Midland, 432-571-4118; or Doug McBride, DSHS Press Officer, Austin, 512-458-7524.)