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Utah Resident Dies from Plague

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Health officials say the plague is transmitted by the bite of an infected flea.

A Utah resident has died after contracting the plague. It’s the first human case in the state since 2009.

Typically, when people hear about the plague, they think of the middle ages when people were dying in the streets. This is not that kind of plague, says JoDee Baker, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

“The thing that’s different about this kind of plague as opposed to the plague that people normally think of, is that this is not easily transmitted person to person,” Baker says. “So this isn’t something that’s going to spread like wildfire.”

This is an illness that is found among rodent populations, and is transmitted by the bite of an infected flea. Baker says they see the plague in Utah prairie dogs almost every year, but it’s rare for humans to contract it, and even more rare for them to die from it. The investigation continues into the circumstances surrounding the Utahn’s illness.

Since April this year, a total of 12 cases of human plague have been reported in seven Western and mid-Western states. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills and swollen lymph nodes. It’s treatable with commonly available antibiotics. The risks are generally highest in rural areas, including campsites, but Baker says there are things people can do to protect themselves.

“We definitely don’t want people to not enjoy the outdoors, and not enjoy camping and hiking and all of those things,” Baker says. “So the best thing they can do is wear insect repellant that contains deet.”

Baker also advises that off-leash dogs wear a flea collar or powder in the wilderness.

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