Department of State Health Services
May 5 , 2004
The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) confirmed today that Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, has been detected in wood rats found dead in a rural location near the Midland-Glasscock counties border in West Texas and in fleas from wild prairie dogs in Dallam County in the Texas Panhandle.
DSHS zoonosis control officials said it is not unusual to have plague in wild rodents in the western United States, including the western part of Texas.
"Plague occasionally cycles through the wild rodent population, sometimes causing large die-offs of rats, prairie dogs and other rodents," said Tom Sidwa, Austin, acting director of DSHS's zoonosis control program.
Plague is usually spread by fleas that have bitten an infected rodent. The illness can be transmitted to dogs, cats and humans. Plague in humans can be effectively treated with antibiotics if detected early, Sidwa said. Infection also can occur by breathing in respiratory droplets from a live animal that has the pneumonic form of the illness.
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 is issuing a plague advisory to veterinarians and physicians in the West Texas, Panhandle and South Plains areas of the state and reminding the public to take routine precautions to reduce the chances of being bitten by an infected flea. The public 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 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.
For more information contact James Alexander, (806) 655-7151, feel free to e-mail Dr James Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org in the Amarillo area, or Karen McDonald, (806) 767-0427, email@example.com in the Lubbock area.
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