Plague ecology in the United States
Corporate Authors:National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (U.S.). Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Bacterial Diseases Branch.
Description:Plague in Nature
Plague occurs naturally in the western U.S., especially in the semi-arid grasslands and scrub woodlands of the southwestern states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
The plague bacterium (Yersinia pestis) is transmitted by fleas and cycles naturally among wild rodents, including rock squirrels, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and wood rats.
Plague in Humans
Occasionally, infections among rodents increase dramatically, causing an outbreak, or epizootic. During plague epizootics, many rodents die, causing hungry fleas to seek other sources of blood. Studies suggest that epizootics in the southwestern U.S. are more likely during cooler summers that follow wet winters.
Humans and domestic animals that are bitten by fleas from dead animals are at risk for contracting plague, especially during an epizootic. Cats usually become very ill from plague and can directly infect humans when they cough infectious droplets into the air. Dogs are less likely to be ill, but they can still bring plague-infected fleas into the home. In addition to flea bites, people can be exposed while handling skins or flesh of infected animals.
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