Summertime in Arizona’s higher terrain means an increased risk of residents and tourists coming into contact with rodents that carry the plague. Health officials spend the warmer months monitoring squirrels, mice and prairie dogs for the rare but sometimes fatal disease. They also warn the public to avoid contact with wildlife and recommend that pets have flea collars or be sprayed routinely. Here are five things to know about plague in Arizona:
WHAT MAKES PLAGUE ENDEMIC IN PARTS OF ARIZONA?
Experts say plague has adapted to specific ecological conditions in most areas of Arizona above 4,500 feet in elevation. It’s also endemic in parts of the western United States. The combination of the elevation and the temperature in areas like Flagstaff and the rim of the Grand Canyon allow fleas to transmit the bacteria to rodents, whereas the hotter temperatures in Phoenix or the floor of the Grand Canyon aren’t suitable habitat for fleas.
HOW DO HEALTH OFFICIALS TRACK PLAGUE?
Coconino County health officials constantly watch for massive die-offs in prairie dog colonies or other rodent populations that could indicate the presence of plague and rely heavily on the public for tips. Earlier this year, the county dusted rodent burrows with insecticide at a popular hiking area in northeast Flagstaff after fleas tested positive for plague. At the Grand Canyon, health officials are trapping squirrels and combing the animals’ fur for fleas that are tested for the plague. The monitoring will continue at least through September.
HOW DO HUMANS CONTRACT PLAGUE?
Once known as the Black Death, plague is primarily a disease of animals but can be spread to humans through bites from infected fleas or contact with infected animals. Arizona has recorded 64 human cases of the plague since 1950, 10 of which were fatal. The most recent fatality was Eric York, a wildlife biologist who had performed a necropsy on a mountain lion in 2007 that died of the plague. A National Park Service review board found that he wasn’t wearing protective gear.