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New Mexico boy diagnosed with plague
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service


July 27, 2005

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - If you're worried about plague, keep your eye on the humble prairie dog.

The first human case of plague in New Mexico in two years was confirmed by the Department of Health Monday, and animal cases are on the rise around the state, said Paul Ettestad, the state public health veterinarian.

That's not reason to panic, as long as people are careful, said Mark DiMenna, Albuquerque's bio disease management supervisor.

"One factor that's pretty telling about plague is when a prairie dog colony suddenly drops dead," DiMenna said. "They're pretty sensitive to plague, and the disease can wipe out a colony in under a week."

Plague is most common at higher elevations where there are a lot of juniper trees because there are more species of animal for it to travel through, and animals tend to migrate more because of scarce food resources, DiMenna said.

That fits with the human case found by the Department of Health.

An adolescent boy between the ages of 13 and 18 contracted the disease in a rural area of Santa Fe County. The state doesn't release the names, ages or exact locations of victims, Ettestad said.

The boy became ill last week and is still in the hospital but is expected to fully recover, Ettestad added.

"We investigated the house and found some rodent die-off in burrows near the home," Ettestad said. "There were a lot of fleas. He had some insect bites on his leg and developed a bubo, and that's how we think he got the disease."

Plague can be cured with antibiotics. It is spread most often by infected fleas but can also be spread by infected animals.

So far this year two animals - a cat and a squirrel - were found to have died of plague in Bernalillo County in the Northeast Heights area right next to the Sandias, Ettestad said.

Around the state, there have been more than a dozen confirmed animal deaths so far this year from plague, compared with less than 10 last year, he added.

"We had a lot of moisture in the spring, and that usually increases the vegetation and that in turn increases the rodent population," Ettestad said. "June, July and August are usually the months where we have the most activity, so we have a while to go before we know what the final number of animal cases will be for the year."

Ettestad and DiMenna said they wouldn't be surprised if another human case appears. They hope that the boy's case will serve as a warning for New Mexico residents to watch for the signs and be careful.

"We've been steeling up for a bad year," DiMenna said. "As long as it stays wet and we have vegetation it will probably be OK, but if we have a mild winter and less moisture the infected animals will probably disperse and look for other areas to live in. That could spread the disease further, which is what we're really concerned about."

Another sign of the disease is if a cat, dog or other outdoor animal dies suddenly with no signs of trauma, DiMenna said.

"If people find a dead cat or dog or anything like that on their property they should call the city's 311 line," DiMenna said. "Then we can have our people go out and check to make sure it's not plague."

City workers take samples of dead animals they find before destroying the carcasses and test them for plague, he added.

"People should really stay away from dead animals," DiMenna said. "If fleas are on it and it dies and goes cold, those fleas will be looking for a new home."

The Health Department advises people to treat pets with flea products and clear areas near their homes where rodents might live, Ettestad said.

"I hope people will heed this as a warning and take precautions," he said. "If they do, hopefully we won't see any more human cases this year."


Contact Sue Vorenberg of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at

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