Ground Squirrel in California Tests Positive for Plague

Plague in California

In Southern California a dead ground squirrel tested positive for the deadly plague bacteria. Health officials say it is the first plague bacteria discovered in Riverside County, California for over a decade.

The ground squirrel was tested in conjunction with routine testing from Fern Basin campground in the San Jacinto Mountains, north of Idyllwild. Health officials collected the squirrel carcass on September 6 and confirmed the plague results on Tuesday. The plague infected squirrel showed low levels of the bacteria.

Squirrels, rats and other rodents can become infected with the plague bacteria after they are bitten by infected fleas.

The Fern Basin campground remains open even after health officials were quick in warning campers and hikers of the bacteria affected area. Dottie Merki, chief of the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise, “We normally only close the campground if there is a high level of antibodies in the system and a high level of fleas.”

“There’s no need to be frightened about it, you should just always be cautious about camping in areas where the plague is endemic,” Merki added. “We don’t want to incite panic in the public. Our first reaction is just to make sure people are aware that it’s out there so they can take precautions to protect their families and their pets.”

Riverside County health officials also pointed out that there is a very small risk of transmission to humans from squirrels. Plague is transmitted to humans from handling of an infected animal or from the bite of an infected flea, but cannot spread from person to person. People need to take the proper precaution like avoiding contact with squirrels and other wild animals, not feeding or touching wild animals, not touching dead animals, not resting or camping near animal burrows, and for pets to leave them at home or keep them leashed and use flea-control methods.

The last cases of humans becoming infected with the plague in California happened in April of 2006 in Los Angeles County and June of 2006 in Inyo County, says Ronald Owens, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health.

Plague pandemics like the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out tens of millions of people across Europe and Asia. However, cases of plague infection in the modern era are rare. In the last 110 years, there have been about 1,000 cases of the plague infecting Americans, reported Daily Mail.

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