Eintime Conversion for education and research 06-18-2007 @ 04:58:07
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'Black Death' found in Denver squirrels

By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY

DENVER — A rash of squirrel deaths from plague in the middle of Colorado's largest city has heightened surveillance for the deadly but curable disease.

No humans here have been infected with plague, the "Black Death" disease that killed millions in 14th-century Europe. A state hotline gets 50-75 calls daily about dead rodents. Chris Urbina, Denver's health director, says the risk of catching it "is extremely low."

One human case has been reported in the USA this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 49-year-old man in San Juan County, N.M., was hospitalized last week and is recovering. A flu-like illness that occurs most often in lymph nodes or the blood, plague is treatable with antibiotics.

Denver's last outbreak in rodents was nearly 40 years ago. So far, 13 squirrels have been found dead in or near City Park, an urban playground 2 miles from the state Capitol. Two infected squirrels and an infected rabbit were found dead in Denver suburbs.

Plague bacteria are carried by fleas that infect wild rodents, rabbits and cats, usually in rural areas. Plague reached the USA in the 19th century in rats on ships. It exists today only in the West, mainly in four states: New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California.

Infected fleas can jump onto animals or humans. Coyotes, foxes and birds that feed on an infected carcass can transport the fleas but are resistant to plague.

John Pape, an epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, suspects that is how it got into town. He says the Denver occurrence is not an "outbreak" but warrants tracking. City workers this week caught 17 squirrels for testing.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports 10-20 people a year catch plague in the USA. On average, one in seven dies.

"We're always on watch," says Deborah Busemeyer of the New Mexico Department of Health. The state had an above-normal year in 2006: Eight cases and three deaths. Pape says plague is more common in New Mexico than Colorado, where the last death was in 2004, one of three infections that year.

Plague season runs from April to November during periods of moisture and moderate temperature.

Among pets, dogs are resistant but cats are highly susceptible.

"Right now is a good time to keep cats inside," says Diane Milholin, a Denver health inspector. "Your dog is not going to get sick from a flea, but if the flea stays on the dog and decides to bite you, you could get sick."

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